The Night Market

Author’s note:

Start of a new fic, an AU modern NS fic. Naruto is a master pick pocket and Sakura is a ramen cook and med student. Have more to write, but for now, here’s the first chapter to enjoy! 

The bowl of steaming ramen flashing in green and red neon from the side of the building signaled the best possible escape route. Eying the narrow, tightly packed alley beneath the sign, Naruto tugged his dark grey hoodie farther over his head and turned in, disappearing into the crowd of shoppers and eaters out enjoying the night market.

He shoved his hands into his pockets, brushing past the small folded parcel nestled there, hunched his shoulders and moved on quickly. He figured he was only steps ahead of them—

A trio of men appeared suddenly in front of him, a wall of sharp black suits blocking the front of the first ramen stand. Naruto froze automatically eyes darting over black jackets in front of him. What were they doing here—

But the first suit belched loudly. Then the other two burst into laughter. Naruto angled up a quick glance up to see three salary men, letting loose for the night. They hooted with laughter, red-faced with food and drink, and parted around Naruto like a stream, never even noticing him. Together again, they jostled deeper into the tightly packed lane. The first one burped, rubbed his belly and announced he was “ready to take another bite out of Ramen Alley!” and they aimed for another noodle shop.

Naruto let his shoulders drop a notch in relief and kept going. But only he’d only passed one more restaurant when a ruckus erupted from the mouth of crowded the alley.

A rush of men — half a dozen, all in blue uniforms — dashed past. He didn’t have to turn back to know who it was…and who they were looking for. Under the shade of his hood a smug smile touched his lips. He’d outwitted the Konoha police plenty of times. They didn’t scare him.

Ducking deeper under his hood, Naruto picked up the pace and wound farther down the narrowing alley. The restaurants grew shabbier and the clog of eaters thinned out. Empty food containers piled beside overfull trash cans. A strip of opaque sky drifted far above towering apartment buildings, nearly hidden beyond laundry lines and electrical wires.

The lane narrowed down to a mere strip only wide enough for two or three people. The flashing signs above each door overlapped one another, rendering them useless. The ramen shops here were mere closets of space, wide enough only for a few barstools and a squat little kitchen. Garish menu posters ate up precious wall space and lined each propped-open door, desperately enticing the hungry shopper who had strayed too far down—

“This way! I think I see him!”

Naruto stopped at an open door and pretended to read one of the garish pink menus taped there. Instead he watched the metal siding of the glass door. Reflected in the metal flashing of the glass open door was the silhouette of a lone police officer, looking hard down the alley and scanning the crowd. Two more appeared at his side. They pointed toward the deepest part of Ramen Alley, towards him, then began pushing in against the flow of shoppers.

Naruto swore to himself and quick-stepped around the door. He stopped on the other side and watched their progress through a gap in the menus. Halfway down the alley, the uniformed men descended upon another dark-hooded eater, pulling him out into the street and jerking back his hood. A brown-haired kid with thick glasses slurped in a mouthful of noodles, loudly declaring his innocence around his food. The three sharp-suited men on the stools beyond him exploded into laughter. The joke spread through the restaurant and spilled out into the street. Apparently the Konoha police had caught the wrong guy.

The energy was sucked out of the search. Pushing the kid back to his food amid the laughter, the officers stood looking angrily at patrons and shop-owners alike, maybe hoping to find some other trouble to apprehend so they didn’t come back empty-handed. Another policeman waved from the mouth of the alley, summoning them back. Then they were gone.

Naruto let go of the breath he didn’t realized he was holding. It clouded the glass between the menus. Now all he needed to do was deliver the package and—

“Oi!! You just going to stand there looking at the menu or you gonna order something?”

Naruto turned slowly, surprised to hear a female voice snapping at him.

Behind the counter stood a slip of a girl, glaring thunderously at him, one hand balled at her waist, the other holding a a big metal ladle that jutted out away from her.

Naruto couldn’t help but stare. It was usually burly, greasy old men who ran dives like these. But this was a girl…. A rather pretty girl.

With her bright green eyes and heart-shaped face, she looked more like one of the city girls who traveled in packs through the night market, smelling of perfume as they passed. Not cooking in Ramen Alley….

Her head was wrapped in a traditional bandana, confirming that she was in fact the ramen cook, not just a pretty face helping out. The front of the once-white bandana was stained grey from years of use, just like any other hard-working man behind the pots on ramen alley. But under the tightly tied knot at the back a fringe of bright pink hair fanned out over the smooth skin of her neck. She was young. She had to be around 20, no older than him—

“Well? You going to order something or not,” she snapped, a delicate eyebrow arching. “I haven’t got all night!”

The corner of Naruto’s mouth twitched at the contradiction in her demand. Yes, in fact, she did have all night. She worked here, didn’t she?

She tapped the ladle on her aproned hip, pinning him with her green gaze, waiting.

Strangely, he found the spark of anger in her features only made her more attractive.

Naruto inhaled the warm air of the tiny shop. Ramen Alley always smelled as stale as an empty noodle carton. But in here the fragrance of broth and cooked meat was heady. The smell coated his tongue and made his stomach growl.

Tendrils of steam rose from the behind the counter and worked like fingers on him, unhitching the tension in his chest and beckoning him closer. Naruto found himself very tempted to stay….

After all…Konoha police never pursued anyone this far down the crowded alleys. He’d given them the slip, so he knew he was safe…. And he was hungry. So why not…Just this one time he’d break his own rule about finishing the job…. He’d stay, just for one bowl….

His stomach growled suddenly, as if sharing its opinion too.

He dipped his hand into his pocket, past the folded package he was supposed to be delivering, and fingered through the folded bills at the bottom. He certainly had enough.

So with one more look into those green eyes, Naruto took the stool in front of the pretty cook and her rattling pots and pointed to the picture of pork ramen. His stomach rumbled again. “Extra pork.”

Without a word the girl began dishing up the meal.

Naruto watched her surreptitiously as she worked. She set water to boil, doused the noodles, and ladled up broth with as much familiarity as any cook in the alley. Even though she looked like she should be out sailing along the broad lanes, her pale arms swinging with bags.

He studied what he could see of her behind the bar. The apron nipped in at her waist, hinting at a girlish figure hidden by the dingy white work clothes. She was more athletic than curvy, and she hoisted the pots from burner to burner like she’d been doing it for years.

She stopped for a moment, checking the firmness of the noodles, then shot her patron a rebuking look for staring. But Naruto wasn’t chastened. He watched her from under his hood, thinking how her eyes looked amazingly green against the her pale skin and dingy clothes. Her eyes were only accentuated by the sweep of dark eyelashes against her cheeks. Then she was moving again, searing pork slices on a griddle and pulling trays of toppings from a cooler. A small black and white television flickered from corner, tuned to the local late-night news broadcast but with the sound turned down.

More than just a third-rate ramen cook, she was as quick and dexterous as any of the old grannies in the night market stalls, slinging several dishes at once. But still, to Naruto she was an anomaly.

She turned back and suddenly was right in front of him, pork sizzling in a deep ramen bowl. Lifting the lids off the rattling pots,  steam left a fine mist on her forehead. She swiped at it with the crook of her arm before drawing out a serving of noodles and plunging the ladle in the boiling broth. She gave a small, unladylike grunt when a spray of hot liquid hit tips of her fingers.

She may look like a society girl, he thought, but this is what she does for a living. He wondered how she came to be dishing out ramen at the wrong end of a dark alley in the middle of the night.  —

A steaming bowl of ramen was plunked down on the counter in front of him. The cook tipped her head to the side and watched him cooly, waiting. Naruto fished out enough money and laid it on the counter. She collected it, then slid the bowl across.

Must be a tough place, he laughed inwardly as he scooted the bowl directly in front of him. But all other thoughts were quickly erased by the waves of steam that were wafting up, enticing him.

Naruto snapped his chopsticks, stomach growling impatiently, and inhaled his first bite. He breathed in broth and sucked down noodles in a single delicious slurp. It was heavenly. He took another bite, less greedy than the first, and savored more—


He looked up in stricken surprise. How did she know my name—

“You want some,” she said slowly, as if speaking to a child. When he still didn’t answer she rolled her eyes and shook her head and lifted something at the edge of the counter.

It was only then that he saw the plate of pink and white fishcakes she angled up.

He grimaced — at the food and his mistake — and refused with a jerk of his head. He dipped back to his bowl, and she shrugged, leaving him alone.

He never ate that stuff. Ever. It was bad enough he was named after it. After enduring a childhood of taunting, it seemed like it was fate’s cruel joke to make him enjoy ramen so much.

But this — he breathed in another waft of steam from the bowl — was much better than he’d had in a long, long time. He swirled his chopsticks, and slurped up another mouthful. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had anything other than instant noodles. Must have been at the orphanage. And that was years ago.

Naruto’s eyes drifted to the pretty cook again as he ate. She was busy ladling out bowls and stuffing cartons, even though there was no one else ordering.

He swirled up another mouthful, idly wondering just why he’d felt compelled to stay and eat. There was nothing special here. In fact, it was the very type of place he’d go a mile just to avoid.

Bright pink menus were tacked to every surface, full of garish pictures of over-glossed food and endlessly shedding cherry branches. “Sakura Ramen” was emblazoned across the top of each one.

The girl turned for a moment. Some of her hair had escaped it’s knot and stuck to her neck in sweaty pink streaks.

Naruto wondered darkly if her hair was part of some grand marketing scheme. It almost matched the pink on the menus. If he squinted. He laughed to himself and slurped up another bite, enjoying the warm tang of the broth and the rubbery burst of the noodles, and feeling more full than he’d felt in…well, years. He didn’t know a fresh meal could be so good.

The cook came back up to the counter. Maybe she was going to throw him out for not eating fast enough, he thought with a smirk. But he didn’t look up to find out.

Hood still up over his head, greedily cupping the delicious steam, Naruto watched her hands move on the other side of the counter. She fidgeted with her apron, looked at her watch, then the checked the pots, jangling a ladle in a nearly empty one.

Swirling the handle she produced one more scoop of golden broth and noodles, and to Naruto’s surprise she dashed it into his bowl between bites.

He glanced up quizzically.

“On the house. It’ll go to waste otherwise. Might as well someone eat it.”

Naruto shook his head at how she’d somehow taken the niceness out of what might have been a kind gesture. But he didn’t refuse it.

And she didn’t seem to care. She turned quickly away, but instead of fixing up another pot, she took off her apron and flung it over a stack of text books on a low table behind the counter. Then she scooped up the sack of cartons she’d just prepared and disappeared through the back of the kitchen, propping the door open as she went.

Naruto bent back to his ramen, perfectly satisfied to eat without distraction.

It wasn’t long though before another customer entered the shop. Without moving, Naruto glanced at the reflection in a small glass-fronted refrigerator. It was dingy, but he could still see two boys, hovering just inside the door beside a cheap ceramic umbrella stand, pretending to look at the menus plastered on the wall.

He took another slow slurp of noodles.

They looked to be about 12, just old enough to get in to trouble. One black-headed, one blond. The boys nervously glanced from Naruto to the empty kitchen, whispering between them.

“But, she’s gone—“ the blond whined.

“Doesn’t matter. Somebody’s in there eating. Too risky.”

The dark-haired one tore a paper menu off the door and shoved it in his pocket, then they took off at a run.

Naruto laughed softly and tucked back into his ramen. He knew thieves when he saw them. And those kids were probably hoping to grab whatever they could from behind the counter while she was gone. That cute cook must leave every night at this time.

He shook his head at her mistake. Following the same routine made it much easier for kids like that — and men like him — to take whatever they wanted.

But since the food was so damned good, he was glad he was there. She gave him a second helping, and he was around to keep the money in her drawer. Well, for one more night at least. So they were even.

Those boys could have been him and Sasuke. He remembered that age, being a young nothing with too much anger and too much time. He and Sasuke raised hell for a while when they were 12 and 13. But at 14, everything changed.

Swirling his chopsticks slowly through the last of the broth, Naruto frowned at the memories. That was six long years ago—

A door scraped shut in the back of the kitchen. The girl came back, scanning everything. “Everything okay?”

Naruto caught the double meaning. Watching her scan the shop for anything missing, then looking back to his food, as if that’s what she was concerned about, he realized she had given him another bowl so she could sneak out the back for a few minutes. He hitched his eyebrows, a little impressed that she was so crafty…but also that she was so foolish as to rely on someone like him to babysit her shop.

Naruto sat back, wiping his mouth with his napkin, and looked at her. He thought about pulling back his hood and showing her what he really was. But he didn’t want to rewrite her pretty features with fear.

Instead, he found he rather liked being the subject of her softening, expectant gaze. She was very pretty, actually. And she had apparently sized him up and decided he was trustworthy. She was wrong of course, but the implied flattery, her striking green eyes, and those two bowls of ramen must have gotten to him.

“Couple kids came in,” he began. She narrowed her eyes knowingly, confirming to Naruto that she knew what the kids were about. “They seemed to know you’d be gone. I’d watch out for them if I were you.”

She slipped back into the huff she had been in when he first walked in, and drummed her fingers on her hip. Perhaps she was expecting those kids and not an actual customer.

He didn’t know why he felt compelled to go on, but he did. “You should change up your schedule. Never do the same thing twice. Makes it harder for them to….” His voice thinned out. She was already rolling her eyes as if she didn’t need him explaining it.

“Yeah…thanks.” Sarcasm laced her voice.

Of course, he thought, nearly rolling his eyes. She’d be no one’s fool.

He stood, chuckling to himself that this girl was just as hardened as any of the old grannies in the market too. The ones he knew never to steal from because they’d beat you with whatever was within arm’s reach if they caught you. Not that they ever caught him, of course.

But she was no night-market granny. The saucy curl of her lips as she smirked at him and told him to “Have a good one” and the bounce of her hip as she turned was unmistakably girlish. And it had the same warming effect as the ramen did — it left him wanting a little more.

At the door Naruto glanced back. She had picked up her apron and was just flipping open the top book in the big stack.

He shoved his hand in his pocket, rustling the parcel that still needed to be delivered, and turned down the darkening alley. He felt full and content. Energized. Which was good…. It was just after midnight, and he still had a long night ahead of him.