Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.

'It could always be worse,' Naruto mused. 'I could have been sent to the five-year olds.'

He tried to stay philosophical about the entire ordeal, philosophical being a term he had swiftly come to terms with during this past week with Hiashi-sama. Following the Cherry Tree Incident, whenever Naruto let slip his control, he was turned over to the three-year olds. While there, he was to focus upon his meditation while the little snots tried their level best to turn his innards into paste, albeit very slowly.

There weren't many Hyuugas three or under who could manifest chakra, but even without that energy, those Jyuuken strikes hurt. Given that nerve clusters and tenketsu were often very close together, and that early practitioners were often sloppy, Naruto's meditation time-out was fraught with distractions. Hiashi-sama wasn't a cruel man intrinsically; he just believed in Practical Incentivising.

The time-outs weren't too onerous, as Naruto had a built-in fail-safe: chakra spike. When those future stalkers got a bit too rambunctious, Naruto would let slip a small Spike. Those that could see it went still and began drooling, while those who could not wondered what happened to their compatriots, right before the fits began for not seeing the same thing. Naruto was not a cruel man intrinsically, though he did believe in Passive Pranking.

It wasn't long before he was back to his prior exercises, the meditative periods being roughly ten to fifteen minutes in duration.

"I understand your team has begun doing Village chores." Hiashi was smirking on the inside. Being the Head of the Hyuuga family, he was privy to Team 7's D-rank endeavors, in large part thanks to the Branch members' addiction to Naruto's chakra expressions. For a moment, he remembered his time as a Genin. Though it was a markedly bloodier era, time could always be set aside for the capture of the Fire Daimyo wife's cat, Tora. "I hear you met Tora."

Naruto stumbled at the mention of that foul creature. "Um...yeah, Hiashi-sama."

"I understand the client was displeased for some reason." Hiashi continued to lead them to a section of the estate which sported a small lake, or a large pond, depending on your economic caste. Several Branch members, along with his eldest daughter, were waiting on the shore.

"It...well...the little snot latched onto me and I kinda, well, I might've lost focus for a bit?" Naruto nervously rubbed the back of his neck. "Tora's coat should grow back in a few months or so."

That particular mental image actually created an uncharacteristic chuckle from the normally staid Hyuuga Head. Although Hiashi had serious misgivings regarding the boy at first, this week's exposure had made him realize just what was missing from the Hyuuga estate. The boy was fire: flickering, warming and illuminating. True, the flames could go out of control, but the young man was getting better with regard to that.

He was still reserved when it came to his being around any Hyuuga publicly, especially his eldest child. The populace did not know of Naruto's current circumstance, nor, Hiashi figured, would they be willing to set aside thirteen years of bitterness, hatred and discrimination in light of the new evidence.

Privately was another matter altogether, and Hiashi found he didn't mind all that much, especially given that Hinata had taken it upon herself to assist Naruto in reviewing Academy material. The boy was found to have missed far more lectures than his past truancy could rationalize away.

Given that Hiashi knew of Naruto's paternity, that singular fact, more than any other, made his insides twist, just a little. His hesitance at the onset dealt more with Naruto's well-deserved reputation as a hooligan and prankster, and what that might mean to the Hyuuga interests.

The continued exposure, now twice daily, was a mixed blessing at best, but at least the Branch side had returned to some sense of normalcy. For a while there, they had...rebelled, being stupidly servile. If one was tasked with pouring tea, they would start but not stop, overflowing the cup and making one massive mess.

Their defense would be to spout factual derisions they had suffered, such as 'Not paid to think.' for why they hadn't. This mentality had spilled over in to every aspect of Hyuuga life, throwing the entire estate into anarchy, albeit in the cool and aloof Hyuuga fashion.

Multiple times a day, basically whenever a Branch felt like it (which was rebellious in and of itself), they would pause and track something unseen through the walls of the compound: Naruto as he moved through the village. If he was doing anything interesting, such as breathing, eating ramen (a visual treat on a whole other level from the wholesale carbohydrate conversion) or training, a group spokesman, one per sector, would narrate the activity. Only the best and most florid kept their impromptu positions, and were granted heightened respect and better portions than the rank-and-file Branch enjoyed.

The 'demands' the Branch had given were simple: more Naruto time. Hiashi couldn't really see what the fuss was all about, although the boy's chakra expressions were interesting to watch. It was times like this that the loss of his brother hurt the most. Being Branch, he would have known, possibly, and might not have minded talking with his slightly older twin brother about the fixation.

As it was, the best he had was his eldest child, from whom he had begun to accept written reports, as those took exponentially less time to deliver than one of her stammering discourses. She was getting better, slowly...very slowly.

That thought gave Hiashi another, one for which he had no clear answer: Why was it that Hinata was the only member of the Main House affected? Speaking of the girl, Hiashi was very much privately ashamed for having tossed her aside those many years ago. That he was grieving the loss of the wife which his eldest so resembled was no excuse, though it was the rationale at the time. He would need to make it up to her somehow.

The boy smoothly slid out onto the water after he greeted the Hyuuga present, manifesting several small balls of fire which he then began to juggle to their glee and delight. For Naruto, the Hyuuga had been a blessing, in both training and positive attention: he drank deep as only the parched could. Hinata took up station close enough for the heat to caress her cheek and resumed their review material with a gentle smile. For this particular exercise, Naruto would be sent back to the Beginner Class if the water temperature exceeded an increase of two degrees within five feet of his position.

However, if he passed this exercise, he might just move on to jumping a rope of fire while on the water, after having responding correctly to a verbal pop-quiz with each wrong answer answered in turn by a thrown shuriken or kunai. These implements, which he would have to dodge while remaining on the water's surface, would be tied to lengths of string which he could not burn or scorch, as he would be personally responsible for their retrieval from the water if their tethers failed.

By the time he was released from his morning schedule, a slightly soggy Naruto had just enough time to catch an extra breakfast at Ichiraku's before heading to the training ground. It didn't matter that he'd be the only one there for several hours, as he had a sneaking suspicion that if he were the one two hours late, everyone else, including Kakashi, would have shown up on time. Already, the other two would arrive some hours after the appointed time, often only having to wait a scant half hour, if even that.

Naruto catching the short end of the stick was not a new thing to him. That's how things had been prior to team assignments, so it made little sense to change what worked. On the bright side, those solo hours spent waiting were being put to good use in gaining some semblence of control over his new skill set.

Besides all that, Naruto was reaching burnout on some levels, having distracted himself from dealing with other issues. He needed to talk to someone, someone he trusted above all others.

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"You seem troubled, Naruto. I hope it's not the ramen."

Naruto looked up from his bowl and offered a weak smile at Teuchi, the man who had served Naruto untampered-with-food since he was two and still in the Orphanage. "Sorry Old Man, just have a lot on my mind. Didn't make time to deal with it at the time, and now all that time has caught up to me."

Teuchi nodded gravely as he began cleaning his knives. "If you have something to say, Naruto, there is a reason I have two ears and only one mouth."

Naruto's smile grew a bit at the offer, before faltering. "It's, well...it's a secret, but I trust Teuchi-sama."

That got Teuchi to look up from what he was doing, allowing him to see the subtle 'come here' motion of Naruto's chopsticks. In response, he carefully wet a cloth and began wiping down the lunch counter. After a moment, Teuchi said, "If this is about your condition," wiping a hand across his apron where his navel would be, "there is a reason why you are my Number One customer, Naruto-kun."

The boy started, amazed, before his eyes suddenly became cloudy.

"There goes that wind again, stirring up the dusty street. I keep asking the Council to pave it, but they won't listen to me. Gets in my eyes too, from time to time," stated Teuchi softly. "I'm guessing that's not the real secret."

Naruto shook his head slightly, thankful for Teuchi's distraction as he scrubbed his eyes. Him already knowing made this a trifle easier. In fact, the only reasons the session with Anko went so smoothly was having the Hokage in the same room, not to mention Anko's personality was pretty fun, despite her being absolutely crazy.

"It's gone, the Fox is." Teuchi's right eyebrow rose instantly. "The Fourth's Seal is still intact and working," Naruto hurriedly added, "taking the Fox's energy and converting it to power the Seal, that's what Hokage-jijii told me...just the Fox isn't there to see it all happen. Some type of accountant or something said it had been suspended."

Being a master at his trade meant having a sharp and agile mind. "Was Kyuubi a name or a job title?"

"Name, as far as I know. Its job title was, um," Naruto paused nervously, "the Incarnation of Fire."

That actually made Teuchi pause in his counter wiping, before he took Naruto's bowl and refilled it. "You spoke in past tense, which means the Fox is no longer doing this job. Who is?" He saw the boy shrink in his seat before cautiously indicating himself. "You?" A slight nod. Teuchi turned and went to their coldbox, returning with a glass of milk, which he placed next to Naruto's bowl. "I believe you."

He didn't ask for proof, nor did he question the claim. This level of pure acceptance and trust was more than Naruto could handle, even during the best of times. The boy's mind promptly shut down.

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When he awoke, he was in a strange place, or rather, a different place. For starters, he was on a rather comfortable, if old, sofa with a concerned Ayame placing a cool cloth on his forehead. Their eyes very briefly met, as her hand was dangerously close to stroking his whisker marks, before she was on the other side of the room.

This was no easy feat, considering the low table now visible between them.

"That was so cool, Ayame-chan! I didn't know you knew ninja moves!"

The girl in question flushed and stumbled into a table holding a vase of flowers, which she spun and caught, deftly placing them back on the still-rocking tabletop. "It's...um...I need to get Papa..." Her voice drifted off as she gazed at the recumbent boy.

"You mean Teuchi-sama? He's not hurt or anything, is he? Um, Ayame-chan, you okay? Ayame?"

"Huh? Oh! Yes! Um...I'll just...just...um. Yes." She turned, blushing brightly at being caught staring and stumbled out the door and down a few steps. She arrested her descent, turned back to Naruto, and couldn't stop the giggles which slipped past her lips.

"I'm okay, Naruto-kun, and...um...thank you for asking." She turned and took a few more steps down, before turning back again with a few steps up, looking for all the world as if she had something else to say. She didn't though, as with a bemused and highly flushed look she fled, leaving a very puzzled Naruto behind.

"That was weird."

"No, Naruto-kun, that was normal." Teuchi couldn't suppress the wince at the sound the boy's neck made. "Are you okay, Naruto? I brought your milk."

"I'm...you just surprised me is all." Naruto chuckled weakly while rubbing the back of his neck, massaging more to the point. Turning his head that quickly had not been painless. "Thanks for the milk, Old Man. Um, how long was I out?"

"Only a few minutes. Do you know what brought it on, or should you be taken to the hospital?"

Naruto couldn't keep his own wince away when the H-word was mentioned. "Naw, I'm good. Just had too much info to process and my brain locked up." He paused for a moment before standing, having placed his milk on the low table between them. "I thank you for your care," he said with a rather formal bow.

"Sit, sit. I do have a few questions for you, if you don't mind."

Taking his seat, Naruto was reminded of something. "Oh, that's right! Ayame-chan was looking for you. Um, you want me to send a clone to help her with the stand? She could tend the counter while I, or my clone rather, looked after the cleanup."

Teuchi mulled over it quickly, and wasn't too keen on having unsupervised teens together, especially with how Ayame had been acting of late. Still, this was Naruto, a good kid in general, not counting his prankster ways, but also impervious to innuendo and amorous advances, if the Hyuuga girl was anything to go by. He, or his proxy, could be trusted in such a potentially dangerous situation. "I would appreciate that, Naruto. This shouldn't take that long."

With a minimal gesture, a clone was bowing. "I'll take good care of the stand, Teuchi-dono! Believe it!" The clone quickly vanished down the stairway leading from the living quarters to the stand's kitchen.

"Dono, is it now?" Teuchi cast a bemused look to the boy, who was looking rather sheepish.

"Well, Teuchi-sama, they are a part of me, or something, and really, really respect you. Now, um...about those questions?"

"Ah, yes. I'm guessing that being the Incarnation of Fire allows for control of such. Now, this past week, there has been no issue with fire during the night, when one would normally be sleeping. So what caused the complete fire outages before? One day, you're telling me about Team Placements, the next day all my burners stop working."

"Ah!" The boy's cheeks tinted in embarrassment and consternation at having caused Teuchi any grief. 'I'll make double sure his fires never go out...or the Hyuugas. If Ichiraku had flame and the Hyuuga didn't, I think Hiashi-sama would quickly go back to looming. Oh, can't forget Jijii either, so that means the Hokage Mansion and the Sarutobi clan grounds.' "Um, about that, you see..."

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"Hey there, Ayame-chan! Where do you need me?"

She blinked before blushing. 'I really need to stop reading those ecchi books!' "Naruto-kun?"

"Narutwo, at your service. Your dad wanted to talk with Boss, so I was sent to help out with dishes and whatnot."

"Oh? Um, over here then." She walked up and past him, bumping his hip with her own while trying to hide her grin.

Narutwo blinked and took a further step to the side, slightly confused over her current clumsiness and the ninja-like way she moved upstairs, even catching a falling vase!

She bumped into him again at the sinks, and this time Narutwo saw the grin. The spark of realization came into his eyes that this must be one of those games kids play, well, that other non-Kyuubi kids play. Armed with such knowledge, he bumped her hip back, though perhaps just a little bit more forcefully, this being his first time playing this game.

He saw her look of surprise and slid into action as she struggled to regain her balance from the unexpected move. His training since graduation, especially with the daytime Hyuuga and nighttime Kotetsu-Izumo sessions, while not erasing all the skills-based sabotage, went a long way towards placing him in the physical skill set he should currently have as a rookie Genin.

Narutwo surprised himself with how smoothly he caught Ayame, preventing her from hitting the floor with his left arm around her waist and his right arm across her back, his right hand gripping her right shoulder loosely. "Sorry about that Ayame-chan. I guess I need more practice to play this game right."

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The Branch Hyuuga, by and large, liked and respected Hinata, though this wasn't always the case. Before Naruto, she was generally treated with embarrassed pity more than anything else. Since the boy had been coming to the compound though, they had all seen the change in the heiress. It was a subtle change, much like the seedling pushing its sprouts through the soil, but a change nevertheless.

What they liked most was how pleased she was that others were finally seeing the boy's worth. She even shared with them her rather extensive and slightly disquieting knowledge of the boy, his habits, haunts and normal routes. She even got them clearance to witness the Bonfire Incident during Naruto's first night of cleanup punishment, though that in turn led to several members of the expedition being treated at the clan's infirmary for severe eyestrain.

They appreciated that she appreciated them. This went quite beyond her gentle temperament, and unlike her younger sister, had never once raised her voice at any of them. In repayment, Hinata was the only Main family member who did not have any issues with the staff during their stupidly servile revolt. Another thing was to notify the heiress of Naruto's movements.

She had mentioned, shyly, that she had felt it her duty to watch after Naruto, and was overjoyed that now there were others of her family, which to her included all the Branch members, who were willing to share in this duty. It was a touching sentiment, and given the boy's energy signature, not an onerous one in the least! So, Branch members on watch would notify others, and down the chain it would go, rather quickly, until Hinata herself was informed.

This was her information circle, or spy ring, run beneath the elders' collective noses with them not really having a clue. All they cared about was servitude, so long as it didn't pertain directly to them, and profits. They had figured out, however, that the boy coming twice daily was very inexpensive and made the Branch happy, for some odd reason. Happy Hyuugas meant for Productive Hyuugas and the clan's bottom line had shown this to be true.

So it was that Ishi Hyuuga, Hinata's seventh cousin on her mother's side, went to inform the heiress about a strange situation. He found her beneath one of their cherry trees, trying to snatch blossoms as they fell. He privately admitted that her movements were pleasingly fluid, but the rather esoteric exercise was not one with which he was familiar. In fact, it was one which had fallen out of favor many years ago when an elder groused that he didn't want to see his children 'flapping their arms about like deranged geese.'

Hinata had found mention of it in the clan archives, of which she had access during her Academy years, but had only of late actually used. Naruto's work ethic, cheerful nature and sincere compliments had awoken something in the normally reserved girl, so she dove into the archives searching for other training methods which she could use to excel and be of use to the boy.

He waited until she noticed him, then began uncertainly. "Hinata-sama, there is...something we think you should see."

Her Byakugan had not been active, since the point of this particular exercise was the see the petals on the edge of vision and sense them behind you. At his words, she engaged her bloodline and turned in the direction he was facing to further focus her attention. What she saw was odd.

Naruto, even at range, was easy to find, though he was indicated by a bright blob. She could see two blobs actually, so one or both were clones...a sweep confirmed that Naruto was not at the training ground. Triangulation done mentally caused her to surmise that he had altered his routine schedule and gone to Ichiraku's Ramen Stand.

So why was one downstairs and the other up? Then the one downstairs bent forward at the waist, like it was holding something. Her eyes weren't strong enough to indicate at this distance any other occupants, though she guessed civilian, seeing how the owner and his daughter lived above the stand. At this range, it was entirely possible for Naruto's luminosity to obscure any nearby expressions.

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Their faces were close, well, close enough. Ayame, never one to waste such a golden opportunity, reached up and grabbed Naru...two's face. His hands were otherwise occupied and it was almost comical how wide his eyes became when she quickly pulled his face towards her and kissed him. She had never kissed anyone before, since pillows don't count, though she had read about the technique often enough in her novels.

So great was his surprise that he jumped backwards, dumping Ayame on her rump in the process. He pointed a trembling finger at her and spluttered, "You...you...ki..ki..." He paused as a look of wonderment came into his eyes, once the scent and sensations caught up to him. "The Boss just has to know about this!"

With that declaration, the clone dismissed itself, much to Ayame's amusement and consternation. "There goes my Naruto-time, and fat chance Papa letting me have him alone again! Still...Ayame One, Hyuuga Zero!" She proceeded to perform an impromptu victory dance before she paused. "He's my first kiss..."

It was all she could do to keep from swooning.

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As they watched, along with others in different locations (only there a Speaker gave the play-by-play), the bottom floor blob suddenly straightened, several steps from where it had been, before it vanished. The upstairs blob seemed to have jumped up and moved around, and in various parts of the property, the buzz began of what this could mean.

"Ishi-san, how is your marriage?" Hinata asked softly.

Pleased that she knew his name, he was still surprised at the question. "Very well, and thank you for asking, Hinata-sama."

"Could you bring Asaka-san here? I think I might have need of both of you."

Nodding, he ran off, returning rather quickly with Asaka in tow. "Your will, Hinata-sama?"

Hinata, brow creased in thought and concentration, said, "I asked for her because she is your wife, since the positions may be awkward. Ishi-san, get in Naruto-kun's position." She observed him with a critical eye. "It looks like he was holding someone. Asaka-san, if you would act as that someone?"

Blushing from the public display of affection, though mollified a bit since it was technically an order, Asaka maneuvered herself into her husband's arms. "I think you may be on to something, Hinata-sama. In this position, I am off balance and would be unable to stop my fall should I be released."

Hinata nodded her thanks. "I need you to hold that position for a while longer. He had to have been holding someone not much bigger than...Ayame!"

Ishi knew the tone and paled. "Um, Hinata-sama, perhaps she slipped and he caught her out of instinct and protection. We understand she is a friend of his and they were in the washing area of the stand."

Her unexpected jealous spike evaporated, tinting her cheeks in embarrassment at doubting her Naruto-kun. "You are correct, Ishi-san. That is something Naruto-kun would do to protect his friends."

"Hinata-sama," asked Asaka from her position gently, "if that is true, then what made him move like that?"

Hinata got a slightly spacy look on her face before she focused back on Asaka. 'I really need to stop reading those ecchi books!'

Asaka recognized that look, and with a sly wink to Hinata, reached up and grabbed her husband's face, pulling him in for a quick kiss. So great was his surprise at this public exhibition that he jumped backwards, dumping Asaka on her rump in the process. All movement ceased as heads turned towards Hinata.

Her face had flushed at the kiss, she blinked at the movement, and then her agile mind darkened her cheeks. "That...she...Naru...Asaka-san, attend. Ishi-san, I want you to inform my father that I seek an audience. I won't let her get away with trying to steal my Naruto-kun!"

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In the upstairs of the Ichiraku residence, Naruto was eagerly explaining some of his control exercises when he stiffened, yelped, and flipped over the back of the couch.

"Is there a problem, Naruto?" asked a startled Teuchi.

"Um...um...Ayame...ki...ki..." If there was ever a time where Naruto was thankful for the Hyuuga control lessons, it was now. Without the training Hiashi had overseen, Naruto had no doubts that his 'gift,' as it were, would have burned this place down to ash many times over from all the emotional shocks he had experienced since first parting Ichiraku's privacy curtain.

"Calm down and start from the beginning." After a few minutes, the situation became clear, at least to Teuchi. He could tell Naruto was very puzzled and more than slightly troubled. Luckily, he had prepared for this moment, as he knew there would be few others in this village who would help the boy to this extent, and the boy needed the help, that much was certain. He had practiced delivering this lesson on his own daughter after that first silent blushing exchange between the two teens.

"Naruto, I am not upset with you. Nor is Ayame in trouble, though I will have a talk with her about this. Now then, it is important that you attend my words. I feel the need to teach you something, a lesson that will serve you well for the rest of your life if you listen well."

Naruto, after his initial embarrassment, was transfixed. Teuchi-sama wanted, actually wanted to teach Naruto something he personally felt important. Precious few others had volunteered to teach Naruto anything, and when it came to trust, Teuchi was on a whole other level, even higher than the Hokage.

So when Teuchi began The Talk, Naruto didn't even blink, nor did he complain. This was something Teuchi felt Naruto should learn, so he would, if only to make Teuchi proud.

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"You wanted to see me?" Hiashi hadn't looked up from his calligraphy.

"I did, Father. I have something to ask of you."

"Is this about your progress report?" He dipped the brush in the bowl, squeezing out the excess with easy practiced motions.

"No, Father. That is not due for another two days."

"Ah." He paused briefly. "How goes your training?"

"There is room for improvement," she said softly, echoing one of his sentiments from years past.

He winced internally at the reminder of his offhand cruelty. He blinked unexpectedly as the realization sunk in that he had run out of topics. He decided to wait to see where she was going with all this.

He was struck by how little he knew of his eldest. Something inside jogged his memory. 'Flower arran..no, pressing. She likes to press flowers.' He frowned slightly that this...hobby had already been addressed by the book specifically for flower pressing which Naruto had presented to Hinata as a 'because you're my friend' gift a few days ago.

Her next statement caught him off guard and pulled him from his introspection. "You know how I never asked for anything?" The 'ever' was left unsaid, but was heard all the same.

Hiashi glanced up from the parchment, nodding cautiously.

"I would like to request a favor, but not as a Hyuuga." She could read the question by the way his left eyebrow rose a fraction. "I ask it as a daughter."

He blinked. 'This is new...' "There is a difference?" He almost didn't hear her answer, so soft it was given.

"To some, yes."

This caused him to set aside his brush. Something important was going on here and he felt it necessary to give it his full and considerable attention. "Well?" In a rare show of bravery, his eldest lifted her eyes from the ground to focus on his hands. 'This is also new.'

"I would like for you to buy Ichiraku's Ramen Stand."

"Oh? Why is that name so familiar?" His practiced eye caught the barest hint of a blush. "Ah, that must be where Naruto takes some of his meals, yes?" At her surprised nod that he made the connection so quickly, he continued, "Why should I include this business with our other interests?"

She hesitated only for a moment. "Ichiraku-san makes more than just ramen broth, Father. There's soups, bases, stocks and his blending of herbs and spices. Under the Hyuuga fold, those skills could be incorporated into our own foodstuffs, both for domestic and commercial consumption."

He really could not resist. "Your stutter has improved. I am impressed. However, your favor was phrased as a Hyuuga." Her response to the jab was to flinch slightly and lower her gaze. 'Perhaps I should not have said that, though she was showing signs of improving.'

Something shifted in her posture, and what happened next had him so surprised at its uniqueness that he quite forgot to get angry at the blatant disrespect. She had raised her head to glare into his eyes, right before a voice chilled his core.

"I don't think you quite grasp the situation, Father. She will not steal my Naruto-kun away. You will go down there, you will buy the stand, and you will fire that trollop of a daughter."

Hiashi blinked at the tone before blinking at his surroundings. The guards to the compound gates were waiting for him, for some reason. 'Now how the blazes did I end up here?'

A memory of a voice washed over him as Hinata's words were replayed. No, not Hinata, but Shinju, his beloved wife, so named for the unique pearl color of her eyes which his eldest had inherited. His dead wife, through Hinata, had told him how things were going to be, in tones which brooked no compromise. 'Perhaps a walk will clear my head, as it is not good to be cooped up all the time. Maybe I will look into that favor if I pass by the ramen stand on my way.'

Another thought came to him as he passed the guards, causing him to smile inwardly. 'She was angry about something, which is very new. What got her angry was something the ramen chef's daughter did with regards to Naruto.' This time the slight grin actually reached his lips. 'She didn't stutter once.'