Shop Loyalty

The very idea of denying the Sandaime Hokage a meal was ludicrous—unthinkable, even. At least, it was unthinkable until the little blond boy at his side was noticed.

Still, the owners and servers of the various restaurants and food stands around Konoha would never actually deny the Hokage and the little brat with him, whether or not they really wanted to.

Now, if the little blond Kyuubi boy was on his own…well, that was another matter entirely.

Against his better judgment, Ichiraku Teuchi allowed the boy, on his own, to sit. He was rewarded with the truest, most blinding smile he'd ever seen.

It made him sick. What was he thinking, allowing this monster at his stand? Hadn't he killed Teuchi's own brother? And here he was, feeding the beast! Surely his brother would be rolling in his grave!

Teuchi gave the brat his ramen and proceeded to ignore him.

Incorrectly assuming that this meant that the man was willing to listen, the little boy regaled the man with the details of his day, chattering happily to the first person other than the Sandaime who'd ever bothered to listen.

"Thanks, jii-san!" the boy called as he ran off after paying. The boy missed the grimace of disgust at this confirmation at having willingly fed the demon.

When, two weeks later, a six-year-old Naruto was eating at Ichiraku's for the eighth time without the Hokage, Teuchi decided enough was enough. He was tired of the stupid blond brat who never stopped talking, who drove off all the customers, and who constantly reminded Teuchi of his betrayal of his dead brother.

"Look, boy," Teuchi finally said as he accepted the smiling child's money, "you're going to have to find somewhere else to eat. You can't eat here anymore."

The child's smile froze. "B-but…"

"No," was Teuchi's flat response.

The smile returned, but it was flat, and didn't reach the boy's eyes. "Okay! Thanks, jii-san!" And, like every other day, the boy ran off.

Teuchi didn't see the boy again for almost a month—not even in passing. He heard about him, of course. The streets were full of gossips just waiting to tell horror stories about Uzumaki Naruto—the prankster and the demon.

"I heard he covered the ends of all the chalk in the Academy with clear nail polish," one woman confided to another as Teuchi served her a bowl of pork ramen. "It took the teachers half the day to figure out why their chalk wouldn't write."

"Hmph," the other woman sniffed. "Probably stole the nail polish from some respectable young lady. Did you hear about the bells he tied in the hair of the stomach of Maruna-san's puppy? She spent hours trying to find where the ringing was coming from, poor dear."

"I'm surprised he didn't just kill the creature—it's certainly not as if he's never killed before, the monster."

"Truly a miracle," the other agreed, splitting her chopsticks apart neatly.

Teuchi snorted before he could stop himself. That cheerful little blond brat killing puppies, indeed. Such pranks as he'd actually heard of had seemed harmless enough, if a bit annoying. Then Teuchi reminded himself of his dead brother, and how the innocent man's death had been at the claws of the Kyuubi.

"That horrid little abomination," the shopkeeper across the street hissed in fury as he stopped in for lunch. "After what he's done to this city, he has the nerve to deface the gates of one of the noblest clans in Konoha? They should have exterminated him the moment he was sealed!"

Exterminated, Teuchi thought, feeling a slight chill at the coldness of the word. The man was talking about exterminating a six-year-old.

Not a six-year-old, he tried to tell himself. The Kyuubi.

"I can't believe they'd let such a menace in the Academy at all," a chuunin confided to a teammate as they ordered a late dinner. "The moment they take their eyes off of him, he'll murder half his classmates. He'll probably claim it's an accident, then laugh when they're not looking."

The chuunin started as a bowl was set down in front of him with a louder than necessary thump.

Kyuubi. He's the Kyuubi. He killed your brother. Kyuubi, Teuchi desperately tried to convince himself.

"Can you believe it? He actually came into my store and expected me to sell him some food! Me! Selling food to that monster!"

Teuchi just stared blankly at his ramen and remembered a brilliant smile and a pathetically grateful "Thanks, jii-san!"

Then he remembered the frozen smile, and blue eyes filled with betrayal, and he thought that his brother probably would have liked Uzumaki Naruto with his happy chatter and harmless pranks.

It wasn't until late into the night of the seventh anniversary of the Kyuubi attack that Ichiraku Teuchi saw Naruto again. The boy looked exhausted and battered with torn clothes and hair stained with blood.

Obviously, someone had had vengeance in mind.

"Boy!" Teuchi called. "Boy!"

The blond paused, and glanced around to find empty streets surrounding him.

"I've still got some ramen left from today. Do you want it?"

The boy stared at the Teuchi with a bewildered expression. "But I thought…"

"Do you want it?"

With a bright smile, Naruto clambered onto a stool. "Yeah!"

And if the smile wasn't quite as real, and the eyes not quite as trusting, Teuchi figured he deserved it. Forgiven didn't mean forgotten, after all.

"It's been quiet without you," Teuchi observed calmly. "How have you been doing at the Academy?"

"Anou…okay, I guess. Iruka-sensei makes us learn a lot of really boring stuff, though. Why's a ninja got to know all that? I'm going to be the bestest ninja without all that silly stuff!"

"Is that so?" Teuchi asked, a small smile on his face.

"Yep! I'm going to be the Hokage one day!" the boy announced, grinning with a face full of determination.

Teuchi believed him.

The first meal Naruto ate alone at Ichiraku's after graduating from the Academy, he ate in utter silence.

"Ne, jii-san?" he finally spoke up, poking idly at his ramen. "You…knew, right? About…you know, the thing inside me?"

Teuchi paused in his work. "How did you find out?"

Naruto gave a false little laugh, rubbing the back of his head. "Oh, just…around. Mizuki-sensei…said the Yondaime sealed It inside me and that's why everyone hates me."

"Not everyone hates you," Teuchi corrected sharply, dishing up another bowl of ramen for the boy.

Naruto avoided his eyes. "No," he agreed quietly. "But…when I first started coming, you had a lot more business, and…and I heard your family disowned you…is…was it…me?"

Teuchi wasn't sure how to answer that.

"I see…" Naruto whispered quietly. "I'll stop coming, then…I don't want—you've been really nice to me and all, and it—it's not really fair of me…"

"No." Teuchi interrupted flatly. "You let me worry about that."

"B-but—"

Teuchi smirked. "I'm sure business will pick up when you're Hokage and the people realize that this is the Hokage's favorite place to eat."

Naruto stared at him blankly for a long moment, then, slowly, allowed a completely honest, utterly brilliant smile to cross his face.

And this time, the only thing that made Teuchi sick was the thought that there were people out there who wanted to take that smile away.