"Later!"

Naruto's voice echoed throughout the village square. He ran off, after meeting with some of his friends.

"He's just as noisy as ever," Ino remarked. "Maybe even louder." She shook her head, smiling. She had begun warming up to Naruto more. He wasn't the annoying show-off he had been in the Academy.

"I'm working on it," Sakura said. She blushed, thinking that she sounded like a long-suffering housewife or something. "I've got my hands full. Sai's pretty clueless, too. But, at least he's pretty quiet." She sighed. "But… things still get noisy…. since he's very good at setting Naruto off."

"So… are you two an item now…." That was Choji. He was busy gobbling down cookies he had bought at a street-side stall. He offered the bag around. "I mean… seeing that Sasuke never came back…." He winced when Ino stomped hard on his foot. The two of them were waiting for Shikamaru. "Owww-ww-w… Ino…."

"Of course not!" Sakura's face was a sight to see. "What makes you say that?" She balled up both fists, overwhelmed by a sense of denial. Secretly, she had started caring more and more about Naruto. But, if she wasn't ready to admit that to herself, she was not about to admit it to anyone else, either. Especially not in front of Ino. "You should know that romances between teammates don't usually work." She had meant Shikamaru and Ino. But, too late, she remembered thinking that Choji had a crush on Ino. She felt bad when Choji's face took on a sad look.

Hinata brought both hands together, holding them at chest level. She let out a long sigh of relief. The subject of Naruto and Sakura hadn't been an issue in the past, back when the pink-haired girl was fixated on Sasuke. But now, a number of people had begun speculating. She watched as Sakura marched off, her body somewhat stiff.

"Is that your bag?" Choji nudged a large bag with his foot, looking at Hinata. "Or was it Sakura's?" He knew that it wasn't his teammate's. Hinata shook her head.

"Actually…." Ino raised one eyebrow, trying to remember what everyone had been carrying when they gathered together, their meeting with Tsunade over. "I think that Naruto was carrying it…." She frowned. "Maybe we should bring it to him before he gets out of view…."

"I can…." Choji was about to make an offer, until he caught sight of Shikamaru walking in their direction. "Shikamaru's here." The three remaining members of Team Asuma were going to practice together that afternoon.

"Ummm…." Hinata wasn't expecting Kiba or Shino. Kurenai had given them the afternoon off, and they each had their own plans. "I could…." She blinked rapidly, looking for a source of courage. "I could bring Naruto the bag." That would force her to confront him. It would be embarrassing, should she pass out again. Then again, she rarely had any chance to speak with Naruto. If she every wanted him to notice her, she had better do something noticeable.

"We could go as a team," Ino said, making a counter offer, knowing how Hinata was.

"That is… if someone didn't think it was too bothersome…." She made a wry face, looking over at Shikamaru. He had a toothpick in his mouth. She was glad that he had stopped smoking.

"I didn't say anything," Shikamaru said, making a face. The only thing more troublesome than being a ninja was having everyone feeling compelled to comment on how bothersome he found the profession.

"You didn't have too." A smile lit up Choji's face. "We all know how you think!"

"It's… ummm…." Hinata spoke up to get their attention. "I'll be alright." She picked up the bag. It was heavy. She wondered what was inside, hidden by the thick covering of tissue paper. "I'd better hurry…." She took off, hoping to catch sight of Naruto in the distance, before he turned down one alley or another. There! A spot of orange. That had to be him. Who else wore orange, outside of the clowns that came with the visiting circuses? Those, and some of the less dangerous prisoners out on work release.

Feeling very self-conscious, Hinata ran, bag flapping beside her. Where necessary, she sped along the sides of buildings, jumped from lamp post to lamp post, or made her way across the rooftops. Naruto was moving at a jaunty pace, but didn't appear to be in any rush. Depending on where he was heading, she should be able to catch up.

"Where is he going?" Hinta a too a moment to catch her breath, standing on the top of a dome-shaped building. Naruto was making his way towards a part of the village that most shinobi had little reason to visit, except when they were given D-class missions for individual patrons, or C-class duties for the village municipality. The buildings in that part of Konoha were among the oldest and least modern, but were also amongst those that had escaped damage at the feet and tails of the Kyuubi.

Making her way back down to street level, Hinata watched as Naruto pushed open a large iron gate and headed down a narrow cracked sidewalk lined by tall unruly hedges. The building he headed towards had multiple stories and a number of different wings. She walked over to read a large plaque hung over the stone arch sitting above the gate. Konoha Children's Home. It was the village orphanage. She had heard of that place, but never had any reason to visit it.

"Excuse me…." A young child appeared out of nowhere. The leaves on the hedge were still moving some, where she must have passed through. "Ma'am… did you come here looking for a boy or a girl…." The young girl's face looked anxious. Her eyes were very large and wide. She clasped both hands together just beneath her chin, much the way that Hinata did on occasion. The closer that she looked, the more that Hinata saw that reminded her of herself. The eyes were blue, not white. But, the child was short in height, with a hair style much like her old one. Was she one of the orphans? What might her own life had been like, had she grown up in a place like this?

"I'm sorry," Hinata said softly, realizing that the child was hoping that someone had come to take her into their family. She wondered how long she had been an orphan. "But I'm not here to adopt anyone." She saw the disappointment dawn in the girl's eyes. There had been opportunity enough for her to feel that too, back when her father had been disappointed at her progress. "I'm not even an adult yet. Not really." That was one of the odd parts of shinobi life. By law, she was not an adult yet. But, she and the rest of the so-called Rookie Nine had been going on dangerous missions for years.

"Ohhh… I see…." The girl made a valiant effort, trying to look unconcerned. She almost succeeded. Tears welled up in her eyes, and coursed down her cheeks. "What… What are you here for…."

Not knowing why she did so, Hinata ran a hand along the girl's hair, feeling tears of her own forming. She forgot about Naruto for a moment. Her childhood had been difficult. But, at least she had a house of her own to live in. And, things had been nice for a young girl, as part of the Main family, while her mother still lived. She didn't know what to do when the child suddenly grabbed her in a hug, sobbing.

"Things will be okay someday…." Hinata knew she couldn't promise that. But, she felt a need to offer help. "One of my fellow ninjas lived here when he was younger… I think…." She knew more about Naruto than anyone else. But, her knowledge of his youngest days was still somewhat sketchy. "He never was adopted… but… he has lots of friends… and he's grown very strong…."

"Really?" The girl stepped back. She looked up at Hinata's face, seeing something that an older individual would certainly have missed. "You like him… don't you…." She rubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt. Then, her eyes narrowed, that last train of thought forgotten. "Hey… does he like to wear orange clothes?"

"Yes, he does." Hinata wondered why the girl asked that. Had she met or seen Naruto before? Maybe she caught sight of him walking past a few moments earlier.

"He's coming again today!"The girl suddenly perked up and clapped her hands together. "I almost forgot! Thank you for reminding me!" With that, she turned and ran off. Then, she slid to a stop, turned around, and gave Hinata a quick curtsy before running again, hair flying and gangly limbs a blur.

Hinata watched as the girl passed through the entryway. She sighed, and followed. Hopefully, there would be someone to help her. She felt the compulsion to look in Naruto's bag again, but shook her head and steeled her will. That was none of her business.

The inside of the building was brightly lit, thanks to a large number of small windows and magnificent old-fashioned light fixtures. The foyer was decorated with pictures of numerous children, accompanied by their biographies. Hinata felt a twinge then, thinking that the orphans were being advertised, like some kind of product. Whatever worked. Scanning the walls around her, she saw that they were dotted by a large number of crayon drawings and finger-painted masterpieces. Despite the darkness in the children's lives, the artwork was filled with hope.

"Miss?" An elderly woman stepped over to where Hinata was standing. "Are you waiting for someone?" Her hair was steel gray, done up in a frizzled top knot. "Might I give you a tour?" She waved her hand towards a large and stark-looking stair case. "I grew up here myself, many years ago."

"No thank you, Ma'am." Hinata clasped her fingers tighter around the handle of the bag. "A friend of mine came in here. He left something behind." She hoisted the bag. "Uzumaki Naruto."

"That one." The woman nodded her head. Her eyes looked troubled for a moment. "I remember when he came in. Practically a newborn. He was trouble from the very start." She had to look away from Hinata, beset by her own personal ghosts. "But… well… he never gave up…."

"That… ummm…." Hinata blushed, even though she had no reason to be embarrassed. The woman had no idea that she had spent years admiring the boy in question. "That sounds like him, Ma'am."

The woman stared at Hinata for a moment, before nodding and speaking again. "I know where he'll be. Follow me." She took off at a good pace, despite a noticeable limp.

"Okay." Hinata did as the older woman commanded. She felt a bit uncomfortable. Was Naruto here reliving old memories? If he was, the last thing that she wanted to do was intrude on his privacy. As she walked up the stairs, she noticed that countless names had been scratched into the banister. She wondered if his name was there somewhere. She didn't have to wonder for long. With practically every step, she came across 'Naruto,' 'Uzumaki,' or Hokage,' often misspelled.

The stairs were spiral in shape, and coursed up many stories. Every floor they passed was dead quiet, as if no one lived there now, or ever. Where were all the children? They weren't locked away, were they? Hinata had heard horror stories about children's homes in other villages. The same wouldn't be true here. Would it?

As they made their way upwards, the woman told Hinata the history of the old building. Only the lower couple of floors were in daily use, now. But, years ago, before the attack of the Nine-Tailed fox, it had been more than a children's home. It had also been the village hospital; a sanitarium; and a dormitory for the younger shinobi. When the elderly granddame reached the top floor, somewhat short of breath, she pointed.

"Last room on the left," the woman said, gasping for breath. "It used to be his." She said her goodbyes, and began the long climb back down. "I wish I could ride the railing all the way down, the way that scamp used to do. No amount of spankings could ever make him stop."

"Thank you." Hinata couldn't help but smile. That sounded like Naruto, alright. "You sure you don't need any help?" The woman shook her head and continued on her way, one hand placed at the small of her back.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out, the white-eyed kunoichi headed down the poorly lit hallway. It didn't look as if anyone made it a habit to clean this level. In some areas, the dust was thick enough to obscure ornate carvings at the base of the plaster-covered walls. But, someone must come up here on occasion. There were numerous footprints in the dust on the tiled floor.

All of the doors she passed were closed. The door she headed for looked to be open, with a bit of light painting the hallway just outside of it. The closer Hinata got, the more sounds she could make out. What was going on? Peering past the door frame, she felt her jaw drop. The large room, filled with row upon row of musty sheet-covered cots, was packed with children. The bedding had been pushed away from the center of that curtained room, making an arena of sorts. That was the word that came to mind, considering what she witnessed.

"Naruto-kun…." Hinata blinked rapidly after whispering. She had expected to find Naruto alone, reflecting on his past, running his hand over familiar objects, a faraway look in his eyes. Instead, he was there in the center of the room, whooping it up, waving his arms like he was a ring-master. Countless shadow clones moved about the room, dressed up like clowns and mimes. Some bounced younger children in their laps. Others pranced about the floor on hands and knees, giving horsy rides. There were jugglers. There were Bunshin playing charades. There were copies of Naruto making balloon animals and balloon hats, before popping out of existence with big puffs of smoke. To hear the children carry on, that kind of explosive disappearance was their favorite part of the show.

"You guys are really wearing me out!" Naruto raised his arms when a majority of the clones popped at nearly the same time. He grinned when everyone called out 'more!'

Hinata looked at Naruto in yet another light. She had always managed to see the good in him, even when others did not. But, she never realized just how big his heart was. He had come back to entertain the orphans, knowing all too well what it was like to be young, scared, and alone.

"I think it's time for you guys to do all the running around." He ran a hand through his sweaty hair, and then made a face, looking around the room. He closed his eyes and hung his head. "Damn." He quickly had to tell the children not to use that word, when a large number began repeating what they had heard. "I forgot the bag. That would have been a lot of fun. You would have had to take turns." He sounded dejected.

"Maybe she brought the bag." A girl stepped out from amongst her peers. It was the child who had come up to Hinata outside.

"She?" Naruto tugged at one ear. "Who are you talking about?"

"The girl." The child folded her arms over her chest. This gave her a sense of power, knowing something that her fellow orphans did not. "I think she likes you."

Hinata brought her hand to her mouth. That little girl wasn't going to do what she thought she might, was she?

"Huh?" Naruto scratched the back of his neck. Who could she be talking about? What girl might like him? "Did the girl have pink hair?"

"No!" The little girl made a face, as if to say 'what girl in her right mind would want pink hair?' "She had white eyes." She looked over at the door and smiled. She caught sight of Hinata's shadow. "I think she likes you a whole lot." That had all of the other girls whispering amongst themselves. The boys all made faces, pulled down on their eyelids, or stuck out their tongues. Some pulled on the pigtails of the girls, starting a fuss that Naruto created Bunshi to clear up.

"Hinata?" Naruto shrugged. What other girl with white eyes did he know? "I don't think she feels that way about me. A guy would know something like that!" He hooked a thumb under his arm and lifted his chin up some. He then narrowed his eyes. "Did you see her here? She had a bag?"

Hinata was mortified. Who knows what that little ragamuffin might say next? Then again, the one thing that frustrated her no end might actually come to her rescue. Naruto's clueless nature. In any case, she knew a good cue when she heard one. Clearing her throat, she stepped into the dusty room.

"I'm…." Hinata coughed. "I'm here, Naruto-kun." She held up the bag. "You left this behind." She felt every pair of eyes on her at that moment. That was an awful lot of eyes! "I thought it might be something you needed…."

"Way to go!" Grinning, Naruto leaped over a number of cots, landing in front of Hinata. He held out his hand for the bag.

"They're probably going to kiss now," the young girl said with a toss of her hair and a wave of her hand. Trying to seem nonchalant, she looked at the two shinobi out of the corner of her eye, hoping they were about to do just that. One after the other, the girls all began chanting 'kiss.'

"Then they'll probably do it!" One boy snickered after saying that. Naturally, like the other boys, he spoke a lot about 'it'. And, just like those other boys, he had absolutely no idea what 'it' was. They all laughed and giggled just the same. A number pointed at Hinata, who had turned pink in the face.

"Hey!" Naruto pointed at the mouthy young buy, the bag swinging wildly on his arm. "There won't be any of that kind of talk. I've told you all about the Frog Hermit!" That had eyes going wide. "And Hinata was nice enough to bring us the bag." He pursed his lips, put his arms behind his back, and hid a grin. "I suppose… if you don't want to play the big game…." The children all rushed to apologize, and to promise to behave.

"What is the big game, Naruto-kun?" Hinata didn't know if she should leave, her delivery done, or stay. She wanted some excuse to remain.

"The way she says 'Naruto-kun'…." A different little girl scrutinized Hinata with the wisdom of a child. "It's love." She was shushed by the other children. One little boy threw a sheet over her head.

"Last warning!" Naruto stomped hard with his foot. The room went silent for a moment. Then, after running his hand through his hair, he eyed the nearest orphans. "Who wants to see what's in the bag?"

"Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me." "Me…."

Everyone answered at once, Hinata included. She felt a bit embarrassed, replying like that, just as eager as any child there. Her face grew warm again. Hearing a noise behind her, she noticed one of the orphanage's nannies peaking in the door.

Naruto turned the bag upside down and emptied its contents on one of the cots. It was the cot that he once used, all those years ago. The one tucked away in the misshapen corner of the room. Assorted items fell out of the bag, including a large stack of thin plastic masks.

"Nobody move one inch!" Naruto was all too aware how quickly kids could rush en masse towards something they all wanted. During his days at the Children's Home, there hadn't been nearly enough toys to go around. Unless he fought to the point of being bloodied and bruised, he was never amongst the lucky ones. The concept of 'taking turns' had been applied to the other orphans, but not The Boy With The Fox. "Like I said before, you're going to have to take turns. We'll do Janken in a minute."

Hinata looked down on the dusty sheet. There were paper-mache shuriken. There were small painted wooden kunai. Rolls of toilet paper were decorated to look like scrolls. One of the masks had fallen away from the stack. It was painted with animal markings, to look just like an ANBU mask!

"Are we playing ninja?" One boy trembled with excitement. He had been dreaming about that every night, after Naruto's last visit. He was smaller than the other boys, and had the look of someone who was teased a lot. But, there was a fire in his eye that Naruto could relate to.

"I promised, didn't I?" Naruto thumped his chest. He smiled, seeing how excited the children looked. He would have given anything for someone to have come and do this for him when he was an inmate here. He used the word 'inmate' in his thoughts because he had felt like a prisoner, not a hopeful child. Foster parents showed up for many of the other children. No one had ever come to look at the boy with 'whiskers' on his face. Before Misuki told him the truth about himself, he wondered why he had always been left out. "But… before you guys give it a try… would you like to see a couple of real ninja's in action?"

"Yes." "Yes." "Yes." Yes." "Yes." "Yes." Yes." "Yes." "Yes." Yes." "Yes." "Yes." Yes." "Yes." "Yes." Yes." "Yes." "Yes." Yes." "Yes." "Yes." "Yes…."

"Well? Hinata?" Naruto grinned, looking at his fellow shinobi. "Feel like showing off a little?" He struck a Gai-like pose. That had some of the girls swooning. Others just giggled, seeing just how silly posing like that was.

"Okay." Hinata nodded her head. That was a reason to stay. Thinking back to her own past, she decided to leave a message of her own. "Remember… girls can be ninjas, too. We're called kunoichi…." That had most of the girls trying out the new word. "We can all change, if we work hard enough." She glanced shyly at Naruto, the reason that she had worked so hard.

"Right!" Naruto gave Hinata a 'V' sign. "If you want something, fight for it. If you give your word, never go back on it. If everyone is against you, never back down. That's…."

"OUR WAY OF THE NINJA!" Every child shouted at the top of his or her lungs.

After speaking quietly together, setting up the guidelines, Naruto and Hinata put on quite a show for the children. Their young audience stood rapt, too shocked to speak, or calling out until they were hoarse. To them, that was the high point of the past year. For many, it was the most wonderful thing they had seen in their entire life. When the mock battle finished, Naruto took time to show them all his Rasengan, holding it in his palm for all to see. Hinata was coaxed to demonstrate how her Byakugan worked, even when she was blindfolded with a smelly old sheet. The children would hold up different numbers of fingers, or any random object they could lay their hands on. She didn't make a single mistake.

"That was wonderful," the nanny said, walking into the room. There was another attendant with her now, that one a middle-aged man. "But… it's break time…." By that, she meant bathroom break and snack time. The children all shook their heads or moaned. "You can come back when you're done. That is, if our visitor can stay…." She looked over at Naruto.

"Believe it!" Naruto's response had everyone cheering. He looked over at Hinata. "How about you, Hinata-chan?"

"Ummm… sure…." Hinata felt a warmth spreading through her. She didn't have any obligations for the rest of that afternoon. "That is… if I'm not in the way…." She blushed when the children began chanting her name.

"Could you walk with me to the bathroom?" The young girl from outside slid her hand into Hinata's. That had the other girls calling out that it was unfair.

"I…." Hinata didn't know what to say. She didn't want to be unfair. Then again, she didn't want to disappoint the girl again. Sometimes in life, being first mattered. It was a good lesson. "Sure…." The other children all looked at Naruto who shook his head. He didn't mind what Hinata was doing. In fact, it had him looking at her in a different light. But, he made it a point to never single any one child out.

When Hinata returned from her duty, Naruto had her blushing again, after he thanked her for her efforts. Giving her a walking tour, he explained why he came back to the Children's Home whenever he could. He wanted them all to feel loved. He wanted each and every one of them to have hope. There were lessons that he once had to learn on his own the hard way, and he wanted them to know what he knew. Also, although he had never told anyone before Hinata, he wanted to make certain that the care at the orphanage was up to snuff. He had been treated like a third class citizen at best, and didn't want to see any other child live through the same nightmare. While it was true that the Kyuubi had made the children he grew up with into orphans, he was not the demon! Why couldn't everyone have listened to Yondaime's request? The great man had died saving the village!

"That… ummm…." Hinata felt stricken. Naruto's voice had cracked. She had never heard that before. He had been through more pain than she could imagine. Why? "I… ummm… I had hoped that our village was better than some of the others…."

"It is," Naruto said. "And it was." He sighed. "For everyone but Uzumaki Naruto." He went on to explain that the orphanage had provided whatever health care services the other children needed, as quickly as possible, as if they were cherished just as much as any normal child. Naturally, he had been the exception. He had grown up thinking that everyone wanted him to die, without knowing why. Aside from the marks on his face, he looked like the other children. "They taught everyone some kind of a skill. Except for me. I sat in on the classes, but no one ever answered my questions. At least, not at first."

There had been a number of good people there too, ones who risked evil looks from their co-workers just so that they could treat him like a human being. Few people like that stayed at the Children's Home for long. But, his efforts must have finally won over the Headmistress, as she had brought in a new group of attendants near the end of his stay. They had helped teach him enough to be accepted into the Academy. But, no amount of kindness had been unable to wipe away the emotional scars. He had carried a lot of resentment with him, before he made Genin and became part of a team.

"B-But… Wh-Why…." Hinata had her hands clutched to her chest. Her heart was beating loudly in her ears. She remembered the way that her life had changed, after an illness had taken her mother. "Why were you the only one singled out that way?"

"I…." Naruto hung his head and clenched his fists. How he hated that damn fox! "I wish I could tell you. I can't. At least, not yet." He sighed, thinking the unwritten rule was another form of injustice, even though he knew the reason for it. Some of his friends had found out, and none of them had turned against him. It didn't seem fair that he couldn't tell Hinata. "How about you? You had it pretty rough too, didn't you?" He immediately retracted the question, realizing that he had touched on a sensitive subject that was none of his business.

"Yes," Hinata eventually answered. Naruto had shared some of his pain with her, telling her stories that would haunt her for a long time. She would do the same with him. "Things were wonderful at first….." She went on to give him a capsular summary of her life. She felt her throat go thick when she got to the part where she told him how much of an inspiration he had been. More than anything she wanted to tell him how she felt now, but couldn't bring herself to do it. That was not the place or time. "My father is treating me better, now. I don't know if he ever blamed me for his brother's sacrifice. But, I do know that he sees how skilled I have become, even though I may never be as talented as Neji." Her father still kept warning her not to be a burden to her team, but his comments came much less frequently. "Hanabi and I have grown close again. Neji, too."

"So… did my beating Neji help do that?" Naruto searched Hinata's face. In the past, he loved to brag about anything he accomplished. Nowadays, he began looking for the good in what he did. "I know that he stopped talking about that Destiny stuff." Neji had grown to be a good friend. So had Gaara. He had manage a number of miracles in his lifetime. But, he hadn't been able to change Sasuke. At least, not yet. The sand in that hourglass had almost run out.

"Yes," Hinata admitted, rubbing her fingers together. Naruto had done so much for her. "At least, it was a start."

"Hah!" Naruto slapped his hand against his leg. "I told Neji during the fight that I was going to change the Hyuugas when I became Hokage." He threw out his chest some, without realizing he did do. "Looks like I got a good head start." It made him feel good. If people were lucky enough to have families, what was the sense in fighting? Some people just didn't appreciate what they had!

"Thank you," Hinata said, feeling a tear well up in the corner of one eye. That thanks had to do with so many things, most of which she didn't know how to put into words.

"Hey! You don't need to get all serious and everything." Naruto wasn't always good at dealing with someone else's gratitude or emotions. Maybe that was because his own feelings still confused him more often than he might like. "This is a serious kind of place. I'm here to lighten things up a bit." He grinned. "You are too."

"Hai." Hinata nodded her head and ran her finger across her eye before a tear could fall. hearing a growing noise behind her. The children were returning, shepherded by the two attendants. Naruto didn't help matters by calling out 'last one to the room is a rotten egg!' She was almost trampled by the rush of boys and girls.

"Well… I guess we know who the bad egg is…." Naruto laughed when Hinata was the last one to walk in the room, moving very sedately.

"Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata!" "Hinata…."

The children took their turns at playing ninja, while Naruto and Hinata kept things under control. A few children got hurt. The boys ran to him, and the girls ran to her. When everyone had played hero or villain, the nannies helped calm them all down, and managed to get them to sit quietly on the cots. The orphans all knew what was coming next.

"Story time!" One boy stood up. He bounced on the balls of his feet in excited fashion. Naruto had begun telling them about all of the things he had done after leaving the Academy.

"We can hear about Hinata, too!" It was that little girl again. She had come to think of Hinata as 'her ninja,' since she had been the one to find her outside.

"Books first!" Another girl stood on her cot, pigtails swinging, until the attendants told her to sit down. The Children's Home had bought a bunch of new story books, thanks to the contributions that the institution had received in the past year. The children were very excited, since they already knew the old books by heart.

"You got it!" Naruto took the book that one of the nannies handed to him. He leafed through the first couple of pages and perused the table of contents. "Okay. I picked one out. They used to tell this one when I was your age." Story time hadn't been happy for him. He had used to sit in his corner, away from the other children, picturing himself the hero in the tales he heard. "It's called Issun-boshi."

Hinata looked over at Naruto. She grinned. Not only because he had chosen to tell the children a folk tale that her mother had told her, but also because of the tenderness she saw in a boy who had been so loud and so impulsive, that no one else could see past his brash and boasting exterior. It still made her feel special in a way, being the first person who noticed.

"Many, many years ago there lived an honest man and his wife in a small village in the southern part of Japan. This couple lived in happiness together, and even when they were tired from the day's work, they cheered each other with the news of the day." Naruto created two shadow clones. He was able to use his chakra to make one look like a man different than himself, and the other look like a woman. "Kenta was the man's name. He would tell his wife about the things which had happened in the village during the day. Mori, his wife, would tell Kenta the news that her neighbors had told to her."

"Are you two going to get married." A young girl tugged at Hinata's sleeve. She looked barely old enough to walk.

"Ummm…." Hinata felt unsteady on her feet for a moment. She couldn't look over at Naruto. "Shhhh-hhh-hh-h… listen to the story…."

"Although they were poor, Kenta and Mori were cheerful together. But, their happiness was not complete, because they had no son to carry on the family name." Naruto fought back a frown. He knew his own last name, but there was no Uzumaki clan. What's more, no one could… or would… tell him anything about his parents. "Each morning the old couple would pray that the Sun Goddess would bless them with a son of their own. Kenta and Mori wished for a son so badly that one day while praying they said, 'We will be happy even though our child were but as small as our little fingers. If you give us a child we will do anything in return for your kindness'."

"I think you and Miss Hinata should have a baby," a young boy said to Naruto. He tugged on his ear the way that he had seen his orange-clad idol do. "Where do babies come from?"

"Hah. Well. You see…." Naruto was caught off guard. He looked over at Hinata for help, but she held onto the nearest wall with one hand.

"They come from a lady's belly," the girl from outside said. Boldly, she walked over and put her ear to Hinata's tummy. "Do you have a baby in there?" She nodded towards Naruto in a gesture well beyond her years. "Is he the daddy?" The other orphans tried to push her out of the way so that they could listen to Hinata's belly.

"No… no baby…." Hinata cleared her throat. She fought to maintain an even keel. "Story time…." She caught Naruto grinning at her, glad that she was bearing the brunt of their questions, not him. That had her making a face at him. When he merely chuckled, she stuck out her lower lip. The children loved that impromptu little show as much as everything else.

"Many months passed, but still no child was born. At last, when they had almost given up hope, Mori surprised her husband by telling him that soon they would have a child." Naruto glared at the little girl who had opened her mouth again. She turned up her nose at him, harrumphed, and then sat back down. "Oh, their delight was beyond description! Immediately Kenta hurried to the village shrine and thanked the Sun Goddess for the blessing bestowed upon their marriage. But when the day of the baby's birth arrived, everyone was astonished and puzzled to see that the child was no larger than the little finger of a human hand."

"Were you that small?" A boy looked up at Naruto. To him, the young ninja looked like a giant. If the older boy could grow that much, there would be hope for him too.

"Not that small," Naruto said. "But… you know… I used to be the shortest…." That had always rubbed him the wrong way. With all that he had been through, he had to be short, too! But, time had taken care of that. "Even Hinata was taller than me." He put both hands behind his head. "But… as you can see… I'm taller than her now…."

"Is she a dwarf?" One little girl had heard that before, not long after coming to live at the home. She was rather diminutive, and wondered if that meant she was bad.

"Hmmm-mm-m…." Naruto walked over to Hinata and made a show of looking her up and down. He was hoisted on his own petard, as it turned out. With her coat laying on a cot next to her, the white-eyed girl's figure was much more prevalent than usual. That had him coughing this time. She had grown a good bit herself, and certain parts of her anatomy were by no means dwarves. "I… ahem… I used to wonder…." He grinned. "But… no… she's pretty big…." He blushed. He knew what he meant to say. It just sounded wrong at the moment. He waved his hands as if to say 'that's not what I meant!'

"…" It took Hinata a moment to catch on. She turned bright red this time. Naruto hadn't been forward. She knew that. But he had blushed, and she figured out why, even though her own mind rarely thought about such things.

"Anyway…." Naruto coughed again. "You shouldn't worry too much about size." He had an idea what was on the little girl's mind. "It's what's inside that counts, right?" He had her eyes going wide when he patted her softly on the head. "I bet you'll be bigger than everyone else, there…." He pointed in the direction of her heart. The other children looked at her in wonder. Uzumaki Naruto had praised her. Maybe she was someone they should like more. "That's why this is a good story for you."

The nannies looked at one another. They had been young teenagers when the Kyuubi had attacked. Both of them knew exactly who Naruto was. Carrying the burden of their parents' feelings for the boy, they had been cold towards him when he first came to visit with the children. Now, they wondered how so many people could have been wrong about him.

"I was in town with Ms. Kumamoto one day," a young boy stated. "I saw you, but you didn't see me. You were with that girl who's stronger than most boys, and that boy who kind of looked like a girl." A few of his friends nodded their heads. They had gone on that excursion too, a trip to the bakery and lunch in the park. "He said you were very small." He held up his own little finger. "He said that you might even be dickless." He cocked his head. "What's dickless?"

Naruto's eyes went very wide. He had to fight don his temper. There was no reason to yell at the boy for something that Sai had said. He shook his head and tapped his finger against the words on the page, trying to get his voice back.

"Miss Hinata…." The small girl looked up into Hinata's eyes. "Will you tell us?"

Hinata fell of the edge of her cot. Luckily, the attendants shushed all the children, allowing Naruto to get things back on track. "As it turned out," he continued. "Kenta and Mori were happy, and they remembered their promise to the Sun Goddess. Accepting this blessing, they named the baby Issunboshi, which means 'as tiny as a finger.' Though the little boy was so very small, Kenta and Mori loved him very much." He nodded to the littlest girl. "Tiny Finger grew older and stronger, but he remained just as small as he was when he was born. His mother and father often went to the temple to ask the Sun Goddess to protect their little son."

"I wish I had a mother and a father." A boy looked over at Hinata. "Do you have a mother and father?"

"A father," Hinata answered. "My mother died when I was about your age." That had everyone staring at Hinata. She was almost like them. As she watched, the boy walked over to Naruto and asked if he could sit on his lap.

"Sure," Naruto said, feeling a bit embarrassed. "But even though he was small, Tiny Finger was a brave and strong boy. One day he said to his parents, 'Dear Father and Mother, thank you very much for your love during my boyhood, but the time has come now, and I am of age. I wish to go to the great village of Konoha where the emperor lives. There I wish to serve the emperor and become a brave warrior in his household'."

"A brave warrior like Naruto," One boy called out. He was still wearing one of the ANBU masks. He had worn it to the bathroom and snack time. It had been hard squeezing graham crackers up inside it. It had left him with few bites of food, and a large pile of crumbs on his shirt.

"And Hinata!" The girls all had their new favorite.

"Kenta and Mori were a little surprised, but they realized their son was old enough to go forth into the world." Naruto waved the book with a flourish. He was really getting into his role as story teller. "Still, it was difficult for them to let him go, for he was so small and looked so helpless. However, there was nothing that would satisfy Tiny Finger except to go to the emperor and seek to enter his service. After his mother and father had consented to the trip, Tiny Finger asked of them, 'Since I am going out into the world, will you give me a needle? From the needle I can make a sword. If I am to be a warrior I must have a weapon to protect and defend myself." Naruto took out one of his Kunei, acting along with the story.

A number of the boys and girls ran over to the pile of fake weapons and armed themselves, too. One girl brought a wooden kunai to Hinata, placed it in her hands, and curtsied. She stood by Hinata's side, mimicking her every motion.

"So old Mori took a large, sharp needle from her sewing box and attached it to the vest of her little son." Naruto liked being up on stage, so to speak. He still had a need to be accepted, no matter how many precious friends he might have. "And again Tiny Finger asked, 'Will you give me a wooden bowl and a chopstick? I must go up the river to get to Konoha. I will use the bowl for a boat and the chopstick for an oar." Naruto jumped off the bed, and went over to grab a piece of unused lumber. The other slats had been used to cover up a broken window. Climbing back on the cot, he pretended the bed was a boat, and the wood his oar. The children immediately followed suit. "So Kenta hurried to the kitchen and returned with a small rice bowl and a chopstick. He carried them to Tiny Finger and told him to be careful, and to use the bowl and stick well."

Hinata felt her heart soaring. If she had been infatuated with Naruto before, she felt that she must be in love now. Who else amongst their friends would do something like this? They were all good people, but Naruto was cut from a different cloth. Maybe he really would be Hokage some day.

"It's okay…." The girl from outside walked over to Hinata. "Boys are stupid. Maybe he will care some day, too." She gave Hinata a quick hug, and then rejoined her friends.

"Ummm… but…." Hinata wasn't going to cheapen the moment by making any kind of denial. Was she that easy to read? Well, easy for everyone but the storyteller. "Hai."

"The day for his departure arrived and Tiny Finger said good-by to his parents. As Tiny Finger rowed away from the shore of the river Yodo, his parents watched with sad eyes. They waved to him, and soon the little boy and the tiny boat were out of sight." Naruto resumed his 'oaring'. "In the river Yodo the little wooden boat bobbed up and down like a cork. But Tiny Finger was a strong boy, and, using all his strength, he rowed with the chopstick. Oh, but it was a dangerous trip for so small a boat, and the oar seemed so heavy, even though it was only a chopstick. But that was natural, for you must remember that Tiny Finger was small, and that the chopstick was even taller than he was. Sometimes the wind blew, and the large waves almost wrecked the little boat."

Naruto stopped, surprised. Someone had shaken his cot, and was waving a sheet like it was the white crest of a wave. It was Hinata! He was almost as shocked as she was, seeing her get into the spirit of things.

"And sometimes large fish appeared from the blue waves and attacked the strange little traveler in his small, funny craft." Naruto had to windmill his arms for a moment, to maintain his balance. The look he gave Hinata had all of the children giggling. "However, Tiny Finger did not lose courage, and he rowed for many days and nights, keeping his boat skimming over the water. After a long and hard voyage, Tiny Finger reached Konoha. At last he had arrived where he longed to be, in the city where the emperor lived. Everything was strange to the little country boy, for he had never before been in a large city. In fact, he hadn't been in any city at all. Tiny Finger just gazed in wonderment at the sights. On the main street long processions of warriors marched one after another in wide ranks." The boys with kunai began marching back and forth in line. "On one side of the street rode an armored warrior lord on a splendid white horse. And on the other side of the street was a wonderful golden carriage, perhaps belonging to a princess, carried by two strong bearers." The children had Hinata sit down on one of the cots, and began straining with all their might, so that they could push her around the room.

The two attendants looked at the strange play acting going on, feeling a pang in their hearts. It was really touching, what the two ninjas were doing for the children. It was especially wonderful, seeing that the Boy With The Fox had grown up filled with kindness and caring, instead of hatred and bitterness. There were indeed such things as miracles in the world. They knew that, because they were witnessing one.

"The splendid city overwhelmed Tiny Finger, and his heart beat fast with excitement. He grasped his precious sword even tighter, and set out for the palace of the emperor." Naruto hopped down from the cot and high-stepped around the room, most of the children following in his wake. "Soon he came to a tall, wooden gate where two huge warriors stood with long swords. There they guarded the gates and watched all the passers-by." The nannies decided to join in themselves. Each took hold of a cot and held it up, like half of a great gate. Naruto saluted them before continuing with his tale. "So Tiny Finger knew that he had found the palace of the emperor at last. Being so small, Tiny Finger nimbly jumped through an opening in the huge gate and entered the garden of the palace. Timidly he approached the front door of the palace and cried, 'Hello! Hello!' But his voice was so thin that no one could hear it. Then with all his might Tiny Finger shouted over and over again, 'Hello, great lord, hello!'"

'Hellos' echoed down the hallway. The commotion was audible far away, causing any number of janitors, repair men, and institution officials to wander upstairs to see what was going on. They were joined by off-duty attendants and an accountant.

"And at last, hearing the weak voice calling, one of the guards noticed Tiny Finger and brought the Lord of the Palace to the doorway." The children pushed the elderly Headmistress into the room when they caught sight of her. In their mind, everyone should play. "But what a strange thing … no one was there…at least the Lord of the Palace thought that no one was there. He did not expect such a tiny visitor. The thin little voice kept calling 'Hello! Hello! Great Lord of the Palace, I am down here by your feet!' And when the Lord of the Palace looked down, there stood the smallest boy he had ever seen. Why, he was no longer than a finger! The great lord bent down and in a soft voice asked of Tiny Finger, 'Strange little boy, what do you want?'"

"He certainly was a strange little boy." The Headmistress sniffed, looking at Naruto. She smiled. "Some things never change.

"Hey! Old Woman!" Naruto was about to take offense, until he realized that the orphanage official was grinning. It seemed that he had even managed to melt the ice around her heart. "Well. Don't listen to her. She dresses up all proper and everything…." He thought back to his days there, when he would sneak out of his room at night, often without being caught. "But at night… she used to walk around in big fuzzy pink slippers… going to swipe a drink of milk…." He laughed at the expression on the woman's face.

"Well… you see…." The Headmistress stared at Naruto for a moment, and then hung her head.

"That's okay," the shortest boy said, patting the elderly woman on the back. "Milk is good for you. It helps growing bones."

"That's right! I drank lots of milk. So you should too!" He gave everyone a thumbs up. That wasn't entirely true. There hadn't been enough milk to go around for the fist eight or so years of his life. The damned fox had devastated a number of dairy farms before reaching the village wall. He was always last in line when it came to milk and the like. Maybe that had helped, though. He would never allow himself be treated like an afterthought ever again! "Tiny Finger replied, 'I am Tiny Finger, and I came here to learn to be as great a soldier as you.' The Lord of the Palace was delighted with this speech and with the bravery of the little visitor. 'You shall be a soldier', he said. 'Come and meet my young daughter. I think I will make you her personal guard.'

"You should be Hinata's personal guard," one boy told Naruto. "Boys are supposed to protect girls." After he said that, two girls made faces and pushed him off of the cot.

"That's right," the girl from outside said, deciding she should be Hinata's advocate. "You could get a lot of kisses that way." She wondered why Hinata was shaking her head that way. The girl needed a lot of work!

"I…." Naruto couldn't help but look over at Hinata. She happened to choose that exact moment to look at him. They both found something else to look at very quickly. "So, that is how Tiny Finger went to Konoha and how he became the personal guard of the princess of that city. Life in the castle with the princess was a wonderful experience for Tiny Finger. The pretty girl had him accompany her wherever she went. One day the princess was visiting a shrine on the outskirts of the city, and Tiny Finger went along as usual. On their way home they passed through a deep forest, and just as they were near the middle of the woods, a tall, fierce bandit suddenly appeared before the princess. The bandit was very bold and he gruffly caught the princess by the sleeve of her kimono."

"That rat bastard!" One of the boys used a new word he had overheard when the gardeners got into an argument the other day.

"Jerk!" A little girl said that, her voice little more than a squeak.

"Loser!" Another girl put her hands on her hips and glared at Naruto, unhappy that he put a bad guy in the story. Naruto essentially read her mind, holding up the book and pointing to a passage. The nannies and other adults admonished the children on their choice of words.

"Miss Takeko." A boy tugged on the fringe of the Headmistress' skirt. "What's a dick?"

"Wh-… Wh-… What?!" The startled woman furrowed her brow and looked over at Naruto, trying to see if he would do something that showed his guilt. He shook his head vehemently.

"'Help me! Help me!' the princess cried," Naruto quickly returned to the story. "She tried to escape from the bandit, but he was too strong, and he held her fast. Seeing the princess in danger, Tiny Finger unsheathed his needle sword and sprang at the shaggy bandit. Running and kicking, he finally succeeded in pricking the bandit in a sensitive spot with his needle sword."

The boys quickly acted that part out, a little too much to the letter. A number of the male onlookers doubled over when the children found their sensitive spots. That had Naruto threatening to stop the story if the children didn't settle down. Like magic, they all sat down on a cot, hands folded, angelic looks on their faces.

"'Oh! Oh! Oh! I have been cut!' roared the bandit," Naruto said, staggering backwards. "Then he looked all around for the one who had hurt him. But Tiny Finger was so small that he could run in and out between the bandit's feet, sticking the long needle into the bandit's big toes and into his heels. And the bandit was so tall and so clumsy that he could not catch Tiny Finger. Nor could he escape from him. Every time the bandit tried to run away, Tiny Finger would catch him by one trouser leg and stick him with his needle. This he did many, many times, and every time the bandit tried to catch Tiny Finger, the little boy would hide between the bandit's toes or in the folds of his trousers. The bandit could not get away from the little boy, and he could not catch Tiny Finger. So he surrendered. And when Tiny Finger jumped down to the ground, the bandit escaped into the forest, leaving behind him many precious treasures and a mallet."

The boys all cheered. They loved stories where the hero won. The girls looked at Naruto expectantly. They loved stories where the hero won the heart of a heroine. He'd be on their list if that was all there was to the story.

"The princess, who had stood trembling under a tree while Tiny Finger fought with the bandit, now approached him with delight and appreciation." Naruto struck another pose, glancing over at Hinata, a mischievous look in his eyes. "Girl ninjas act a lot like that at first," he said, remembering how Sakura had been next to useless at the start. "But they can't help themselves…."

Hinata didn't rise to the bait. Instead, she did something that she had seen the Copy Ninja do, when Gai was trying to dress him down. "Did you say anything, Naruto-kun?"

The girls all stuck their tongues out at Naruto. The girl from outside put her hands on her hips and wrinkled up her nose. She shocked everyone by pulling her finger across her neck in a throat slashing gesture, before taking hold of Hinata's hand. The Headmistress was taken aback. Where had the sweet innocent children learned all these things?

"Hey! I was just joking?" He saw the girls relax some. "Not really!" He laughed when the boys began slapping hands. Hinata made a big show of turning her back on Naruto, hiding a grin. The girls all followed suit. So did the women in the audience, happy to play along. "Girls! Any way, the princess said, 'Thank you most kindly for bravely doing battle with that wicked bandit. You have saved my life. If it had not been for you, the bandit would certainly have carried me away into the forest. And he would have made my father pay a large ransom for my release. I will tell my father how brave you are, and he will reward you'. Then the princess picked up the mallet the bandit had left, and she said to Tiny Finger 'This is a wonderful and mysterious mallet, my little soldier. It is a treasure of the bandit family. If you make a wish, you will receive anything you ask of it'."

"Ooooo-ooo-oo-oh…." The children knew all too well about wishes. Most of them wished for a new home, every night before their heads hit their pillows.

"Tiny Finger was most delighted," Naruto added. "He made a wish. 'Please,' he said, 'Make me a tall and strong boy like all the other boys of the Hidden Leaf village. He shouted this wish three times, and, to his astonishment, he grew several feet every time he shouted. Before the very eyes of the princess, he became a handsome and strong warrior. There was a great feast in the banquet hall of the grand palace that night. Many soldiers praised Tiny Finger, and everyone admired him. The great lord was so pleased with the bravery of the young warrior that he gave his daughter in marriage to Tiny Finger."

The girls all looked at one another. They nodded their heads. Hearing that part of the story, they decided to forgive Naruto. This time.

"The next day Tiny Finger and his lovely bride set out for the town where Kenta and Mori lived." Naruto motioned for Hinata to join him up on his 'ship'. She did as he asked, feeling a bit sheepish, since there was a large crowd of onlookers now. "But this time Tiny Finger did not sail in a rice bowl, nor did he row with a chopstick. The old lord had given the young couple a strong and sleek ship with tall white sails to help them skim over the water. Off they went over the blue waves to visit the aging parents of the young warrior. In time, Tiny Finger became a great lord himself." He posed again. "Just like me. Because…."

"YOU'RE GOING TO BE HOKAGE!" The children had that part down too.

"Unless Hinata is." The girl from outside looked at Naruto, tossed her hair, and walked over to Hinata.

After that, the boys and girls all clamored for another story, even though the nannies said that it was nap time for the younger children. The Headmistress told them to behave responsibly, following the rules. Perhaps Naruto would come back yet again, as had become his habit.

"What?" "No way!" "It's not fair!" "Hinata needs to tell us a story too!" "Her turn!" "Her turn!" "Her turn!" "Her turn!" "Her turn!" "Her turn!" "Her turn!" "Her turn…."

The elderly woman turned to look at Hinata. She raised one eyebrow. It was a question of sorts, as well as an acquiescence. Looking at the children, and then at Naruto, Hinata nodded her head. Smiling, Naruto handed her the book. Looking inside, she found a tale that had been amongst her favorites.

"Ummm… well…." Hinata sat down next to Naruto. He didn't realize just how hard that was for her. He did know that he felt somewhat strange inside. Hinata could read his face like a book, and grew distracted for a few moments. When one boy drawled 'the storeeeee-eeee-eee-ee-e,' she snapped back to attention. "This is called Nezumi No Yomeiri. The Mouse's Marriage."

"Yay!" It seemed that the girls approved of that choice.

"Crap." One boy made a sour face. Before he knew what happened, Naruto flashed into place behind him, giving him a playful hair mussing.

"Give it a chance," Naruto said. He then waved to Hinata, who continued as if nothing had happened.

"Once upon a time, there lived a wealthy mouse family. Their only daughter was a good-natured young mouse, and Father Mouse and Mother Mouse were very proud of her." Hinata thought back to the days before Hanabi had been born. Those words could easily have described her life. "One day, Father Mouse said to Mother Mouse, 'Wouldn't we want our daughter to marry the best person in the world? Who could be the greatest in all the world?' Mother Mouse replied…."

"NARUTO!" The boys all shouted at once. Naruto smiled, then shrugged apologetically to the Headmistress.

"Mother Mouse replied, 'It must be Mr. Sun,," Hinata said, having already nodding her head after hearing what the children shouted. She pinked up again. "He…." She cleared her thoat. "'He lights up the whole world from high up in the sky'. So, Father Mouse and Mother Mouse visited Mr. Sun and said, 'Mr. Sun, Mr. Sun, we beg you. You are the greatest person in the world. Will you marry our precious daughter? Our only daughter is most good-natured, and we want her to wed the very best groom'. But Mr. Sun answered, 'Hmm. The greatest person in the world is surely not myself, but Mr. Cloud. However hard I may try to light up the world, I am easily hidden away when Mr. Cloud comes out'." Hinata found herself gripping the book enough to crease a couple of pages. Thinking of Mr. Cloud brought back memories of her near abduction by the ninja from the Cloud Country."

"Clouds are no big deal," Naruto said. He might be clueless and impulsive at times, but he had an incredible innate ability to tune into other people's emotional wavelengths at times.

"Right." Hinata nodded her head. She had no doubt that Naruto had somehow guessed what she might be thinking. The past was the past. He knew that as well as she did. "So, the two went on to see Mr. Cloud. 'Mr. Cloud, we have been told that you are the greatest person in the world. Please do take our dearest daughter as your bride,' they asked. 'Oh no, there is someone greater than myself,' replied Mr. Cloud. 'It's Mr. Wind. However hard I may try to cover the sky, Mr. Wind can blow me away with a single puff'."

"Well, that makes sense!" Naruto posed. "Wind is pretty powerful, you know." he had told the children all about his efforts to develop a new wind-chakra based jutsu unique to him. Most had trouble picturing him cutting a waterfall in two.

"Yes it is," the Headmistress said under her breath. That boy sure had the gift of gab. He had been bad before. He was much worse now. "But not necessarily in a good way…."

"'I see,' Father Mouse and Mother Mouse said, and went off to Mr. Wind." Hinata had a very sweet and soothing storyteller voice. "'Mr. Wind, as you are the greatest person in the world, we would like you to marry our only daughter'. 'Well, thank you, but there is someone who is greater than myself'. 'Who is that?' 'It's Mr. Wall. No matter how hard I blow, I just can't knock him down'."

"Just like me!" Naruto stood up on one cot. Before he knew it, he was swarmed over by laughing children who knocked him flat on his back.

"Finally, Father Mouse and Mother Mouse went to see Mr. Wall," Hinata said, smiling. Maybe Naruto was so great with kids because he was still young at heart. She blushed when she found herself wondering just what kind of father he might be some day. 'Mr. Wall, please wed our daughter. We want our daughter to marry the greatest person in the world and lead a happy life'. 'Ho-ho, Father Mouse and Mother Mouse, you are quite mistaken. If you mice nibble on me, I'm full of holes. The greatest ones in the world must be mice'. 'Now, that never occurred to us. So we are the greatest in the world!'

"See! What did I tell you! There's nothing wrong with being small!" Naruto sat back up when the children returned to their own seats.

"That's right," Hinata said. "And… ummm… when you have a group of good friends… you're stronger still…." That had the children looking around the room at one another. Many of them nodded their heads, or reached out to take the hand of the nearest boy or girl.

The girl from outside came to sit next to Hinata again. She leaned against the larger girl, looked up at her, and said "I love you, sister Hinata."

"Thank you," Hinata said, her throat feeling thick. "Father Mouse and Mother Mouse went back home smiling. 'Why, we mice are the best after all. Well then, Chusuke Mouse next door gets along well with our daughter. If the two are happy to do so, it must be best for them to marry'. So, Chusuke Mouse and Daughter Mouse were happily wed. Their wedding celebrations went on for three days and three nights, and they lived happily ever after." Hinata closed the book. The room was silent for a moment, before erupting into shouts and cheers.

"She's a much better story teller," one girl claimed.

"That's right," another girl said. "It didn't take so long to get to the happy part."

"Hey! What's that? Am I yesterday's news or something?" Naruto pretended to be offended. "Are you saying I'm not good enough?"

"You'll do," one girl said with a quick gesture she must have picked up from some adult.

Hinata began giggling. Many of the adults laughed. Even the Headmistress cracked a smile. Naruto pretended to pout, but couldn't keep the act up for long. As he began to pick up all of the items that he had brought in his bag, the nannies had the children say their thank you's. None of them wanted their two guests to leave. Some began crying.

"Whoa! No crying! Don't worry, I'll be back." Naruto created a number of shadow clones to help with his task. Hinata lent a hand too.

"Wh-… What…." The girl from outside looked very upset. "What about sister Hinata?" She turned big eyes on her idol.

"Ummm… well…." Hinata looked over at Naruto. The experience had left her feeling touched. She never expected to find something that felt so right, just by wanting to bring Naruto his bag. But, this was his special thing. She didn't want to intrude on that.

"So…." Naruto smiled at Hinata. He knew what must be worrying her. She ought to know him better than that! "Let's take a vote. Be honest. It's our Ninja Way." He looked very stern. "Who here would like Hinata to come back, too?" The children all shouted. It was unanimous. Naruto's smile wavered for a moment. He had put the cart before the horse. He wasn't pressuring Hinata unfairly, was he?

"I'd like that," Hinata said honestly. Content, the children were easily gathered up by the attendants and herded on their way to much nicer sleeping quarters. Each made it a point to walk over to Naruto and Hinata to hug them, shake their hands, or touch them in some fashion.

"It's really nice, your wanting to help them like that." Naruto swung the bag back and forth on his arm. Using his foot, he pushed a few cots back into place.

"They're not to blame for their situation," Hinata said quietly. She had blamed herself for too long, back when she felt like she had failed her father and clan. She had suffered a great deal, because of that. "They deserve whatever happiness they can get." She looked Naruto in the eyes. "It's a really wonderful thing that you do here."

"Hey! It's no big deal!" Naruto felt a bit embarrassed, with the way that Hinata had said that. Just the same, it made him feel very good. "When I'm Hokage, I'll have a whole village to take care of. I'm just getting a little practice, that's all." He put both hands behind his neck. He looked at Hinata out of the corner of his eye, trying to make certain she didn't know he was doing that.

"You'll be a good Hokage," Hinata said. Her heart was beating fiercely in her chest. She felt a sweat drop or two form. In the story books, this would be the time where the heroine would confess her love for the hero. "I'm… I'm sure of it…." There was no way she could admit he feelings to him there.

"It's will be easier," Naruto said, "With friends like you." He did look at Hinata this time. The events here had certainly gotten him to view her in a different light. He liked what he saw. For a moment, he wondered about things that went beyond friendship. He shook his head, feeling silly. Him and his crazy imagination!

"Now would be a very good time for that kiss!" It was the girl from outside. "I don't have all day, you know!" That had both Naruto and Hinata turning red in the face. Fortunately, one of the nannies found her missing charge and ushered her out of the room.

Naruto and Hinata looked at one another for a brief moment, once the footsteps were no longer audible. They were both thinking the same thing, certain that they were alone in their thoughts. Each leaned imperceptibly closer to the other, before they sat straighter and brushed dust off of their clothing.

"The things that kids say!" Naruto marched for the door. He shook his head when he walked out into the hallway. Those little munchkins. Some of the little troublemakers had drawn a big heart in the dust of the floor. They had put his and Hinata's names in it. Then again, that didn't look like a child's handwriting? Could it have been one of the nannies?

His suspicion was spot on. He had caused one of the attendants a great deal of trouble, carving things here and there, or writing graffiti on the orphanage wall long before he ever donned a harness and painted the stone Hokage faces. This was payback of a sort.

"Hai!" Hinata smiled. It was a small hope, nesting in her heart. But, small things grew larger, didn't they