The Night Market – 2

Chapter 2 – Stolen Smile

The red cigarette tip in hovering in the dark was the only sign Naruto saw that his two contacts were waiting for him at the end of the alley. He didn’t know why he was meeting them at the back door of a video game parlor, but he didn’t ask questions. He just delivered the goods.

He scuffed over a flattened box he couldn’t see, the edge nearly tripping him. It was so dark they wouldn’t even be able to inspect their ‘treasure.’ But that didn’t matter. They knew he was good for it.

No words were spoken. The cigarette glowed bright with a long inhale, then the shadowy figure in front opened the palm of his hand. Naruto passed over the parcel.

Upon hearing the rustle of paper, the man in back stepped forward and clicked on a pen light, shining a spotlight down. They all leaned in to admire a carved jade kimono hook nestled in the white tissue paper. A magnificent dragon carved of jade swooped over on itself in an elegant “S” shape. Its tale arced out to form the hook that would have held together the kimono of an old Konoha ruler. Under the light it gleamed like brand new. But the hook was almost 400 years old, or so Naruto had heard.

Naruto hadn’t gotten a good look at it when he’d slid it out of its case and into his pocket. The tissue paper was to make sure he didn’t touch anything. But now it made the old trinket look like a gift, and in the dark Naruto felt a little whiff of pride at nicking such a beautiful object. He didn’t know much about art or history, but even he had to admit there was something beautiful about it. No wonder it was so valuable. It looked alive—

The man sniffed and pocketed the hook as thoughtlessly as if it were his cigarette lighter. The light clicked off. “You need to go back again. I need one more item—”

“What?! Why? I got what you asked—”

“Shhh!” his partner snapped from the steps behind him. “It’s won’t be a surprise visit if we give ourselves away!”

“What are you doing back here anyway,” Naruto rejoined in a whisper, wrinkling his nose at the smell from trash and fetid water lifted up.

“They’re holding out on us,” the shadow in front of him said quietly. “Nightly receipts. We’re here to make it right.” The red-tipped cigarette glowed again. “We need you to go back and get the other one too. The one beside it. The jade disk.”


“Because he wants the other piece too, that’s why! What’s the matter? This shouldn’t be a problem for you!”

“It’s not! It’s just that—“

“Did you get into any trouble?”


“Good, I already told you about the three guards—“

“Well…it wasn’t the guards. They were no sweat,” Naruto said. And it was true. The three thick-necked security guards had been easy to outwit, although he skipped over the heart-stopping moment when he thought he saw them again in Ramen Alley. “I was chased by the cops.”

“What?!” The cigarette jumped dangerously in the dark. The man behind him snorted a soft laugh.

“Wasn’t my fault! There was a big robbery up on the High Street. Smashed windows, yellow tape, police everywhere. I walked right into it. Guess I fit their description cause they stayed on me for longer than usual.” He gave a nervous laugh. “But I lost ‘em down past the market.”

“What’d you go up that way for? I told you to go around the long way, down by the wharf—“

Naruto tried to act nonchalant, but he breathed in the smoky air and coughed. “Bad info. I’d heard it was clear. Thought I’d save some time going the shorter route.“

This earned him another contemptuous snort. “Who told you that? Somebody that must have had it out for you if that’s the info they gave you—“

Naruto slid his eyes away, looking guilty, and the shadow jumped forward to shove him hard. “What’d you listen to him for!?! I’ve told you not to trust a thing he says! Probably screwing you over to get to me. That whack-job—” His partner grabbed his jacket and hauled him back, whispering harshly, “Geez, let it go already. You’re going to give us away!”

He shook off his partner’s grasp, but still lowered his voice. “I’m not gonna let it go! Next time he says anything to you, come clear it by me first. Got it?”

Naruto rubbed his shoulder. “Yeah, alright,” he said quietly. “When do you need it by—“


“Maaan,” Naruto whined.

“Is that a problem?”

“No,” Naruto answered darkly. “I was just hoping I could have a little time before going back. You know, let things cool off?”

“Nope.” The shadow stamped out his cigarette. “And it’s best to do it now, before they have time to figure out the first piece is gone. If they move the other one, we might never get it.”

Naruto nodded begrudgingly.

A wedge of yellow light cracked through the darkness and the obnoxiously loud sounds of a plinko parlor spilled into the alley. An old woman in an faded smock peered out suspiciously. Pockets sagging with change and receipts, the woman squinted unseeing into the dark while the tinny sounds of digital cheers and falling coins crashed out around her. Naruto automatically ducked his head to keep his face in shadow. When she focused on the two men, she straightened, bowed quickly then urged them in.

“Tomorrow night,” Naruto heard the man say from the door. “Bring it to me, same time. Come to the club.” Then the door slammed, a heavy lock slid into place and Naruto was alone in the still, dark alley. He sighed and sunk his hands into his empty pocket.

It was only a few hours till daylight. He needed to sleep, then come up with a whole new strategy.


Eighteen hours later, Naruto squatted in the shadow of a perfectly round shrub outside an open kitchen door. It was just the right angle to peer up into the kitchen. He knew, he’d been frequenting this spot for the better part of two weeks.

He checked his watch. 10:20. A woman stood at the sink, humming to herself as she washed the rest of dinner’s dishes. Another housekeeper came in with a stack of small plates and tea cups, set it on the counter and sat down to share some gossip. They were completely at ease. Naruto was certain they didn’t know their household was a little bit lighter this evening, having lost one jade hook to him the night before.

These old clan families, tucked away in their perfect homes, safe behind Old Konoha’s walls, they probably didn’t even care about those ancient pieces of junk, he told himself. It was just a status symbol, like everything else in their walled compounds. Sprawling historical houses and sweeping gardens, complete with servants and gardeners. Some houses offered tours of their oldest buildings, putting their family treasures on display. But some, like this compound, employed security guards to ward off an imagined onslaught as if some warring army was hiding beyond their wall, ready to strike at any time.

Naruto snorted. Like anything bad ever happened here.

Old Konoha was like a lazy old samurai, content to grow fat on the glories of the past. The poverty, hardships and crime of modern life had long been pushed outside of their faded walls. And then they’d closed the gates. The only way you made it in here was if you have the right clan name.

Naruto knew where he belonged. And it wasn’t in here.

The running water suddenly turned off. There was a scrape of a chair and the clink of lifting plates, and then the voices drifted into the other room. Naruto looked at his watch. 10:30. They were putting away the dishes in the dining room. This was it.

Naruto hopped up and crept silently through the kitchen, then out the long wide hall, making sure to duck under the open windows. Once past, he ran down the length of the polished wood floor to the clan’s scroll room.

It was so easy. They had no idea. In fact he was so confidant that he already felt the familiar buzzing in the back of his mind, the same light feeling he had when was younger and he picked off something good from one of the night markets stalls. Like a bowl of stew, still piping hot, swiped from the back counter while the some unlucky shopper was paying for it.

Naruto bit down a grin. He had to focus.

This was the part where he felt like a ninja in one of his childhood books. He peered into the room, looking at obvious hiding spots before he entered. Once he was inside a room, it could become a trap if he wasn’t careful. He counted his possible escape routes and watched for any sign of movement.

But this room was empty. No shadows in the corners, no lines of light blocked. No movement in the air. The room was still dusty and untouched. Convincing Naruto he was the last one to come through here in months.

He crossed the room, passing displays of old scrolls whose writings were a mystery to him, to a small glass case laid out on the table in the center. He pulled a piece of tissue paper out of his pocket and cupped the edge of the glass case with it.

On one side of a black velvet pillow was the indention where a the dragon hook had laid. Next to it was a disk carved with a matching design in the flat of the stone. An ornate dragon rolled and tumbled in a perpetual circle around the milky green surface. He scooped up the disk, lowered the lid, and folded the trinket into the paper. It fit nicely into the palm of his hand. Even through the paper he could feel it was smooth with years of use at the end of a kimono sash. When it was safely in his pocket, he checked the room one more time, then crept back to the door.

The night air was warm, crickets were chirping, and the sound of water filtered in from the garden. The open door framed a beautiful picture of the walled garden beyond, with its winding paths, flowing streams and exotic trees that floated like green clouds above the manicured garden. He had to admit, this was the good life—

A sudden creak rent the air. Naruto’s heart leapt to his throat. A shadow fell across the wooden boards outside the door.

Someone was coming!

Naruto dashed back across the room and threw back screened window. He flung his legs over the ledge and looked back to see if he’d been caught, just as the shadow drifted away again.

Must have been a servant. Pausing for a moment, he exhaled then decided to cut around through the garden to get back to the kitchen gate, just to be safe.

He jumped, but the moment his feet thudded to the ground, the air erupted with shouts.

“Shig! Over here! He jumped out the back!”

Naruto shot off into a run, the two thick-necked guards coming out from the corners of the house. The third, Shig, the biggest of them, came pounding off the porch where he’d been waiting for Naruto.

Naruto ran through the garden, leaping streams and dodging artistically arranged boulders. The kitchen gate route was cut off. Now all that was left was to hope he could find a door somewhere along the back wall. Naruto cursed himself as he jumped a low hedge for not casing the garden as well as the house.

Up ahead the wall was looming and he was eating up ground without finding an exit. He scanned desperately. The walls were too high to scale and there was nothing tall enough or close enough to give him a leg up. Ahead, the shadow of a shrub fell across the wall in a strange way. He didn’t know if it was a gate, but he’d have to chance it. The men were hard on his heels, their panting coming closer—

An arm shot from behind the shrub and snapped Naruto’s neck backwards. All forward momentum stopped in one jarring second. Naruto’s vision spun as the biggest man stepped out of a hidden path and hoisted him up by the back of his neck.

“Caught you this time, you little punk.”  He flung Naruto into the widest part of the gravel where several other paths intersected and where the two other men stood, panting hard.

As soon as he hit the ground, Naruto ignored the deep scrapes to his hands from the gravel and scrambled up to run. But they surrounded him.

These men were big. Bigger than Naruto realized.

Their black suits wore a layer of dust from the chase and their hair was knotted at the top as if they were sumo wrestlers. Or sumo in training. But no wrestler he’d ever known of would work at something as menial as a security guard.

Sumo or not, it didn’t matter. These men were huge. Their hands alone were like catcher’s mitts. They didn’t carry weapons, and they didn’t need to. Their hands did the work. And right now, they were aimed at Naruto.

He watched all three with fear coiling in his stomach. This was bad. Very bad.

The biggest one popped his knuckles menacingly. “Show us what you’ve got in your pocket kid, and maybe we won’t break all your bones.”

The other laughed, egging him on. “Yeah, you tell him, Shigeru!”

Naruto laughed nervously from the ground, trying to think fast and failing. “N-Nothing! I was just—“

A kick to the gut silenced him. Naruto curled in on himself, covering his face and trying hard just to breath, as hands tugged at his coat and pants pocket.

When he cracked his fingers and looked up, Shigeru was bouncing the jade circle in his hand, smiling.

“Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way,” he slid the disk into his pants pocket, “let’s have a little fun before we call the cops!”

They dragged Naruto to his feet and pushed him between the themselves, landing blow after blow to his gut, his chest and back of the head, laughing wildly and booting him as he went past, until Naruto was dizzy and grunting with each blow. He stumbled to his knees.

The worst of it was he knew that getting beaten up would be just the start of his problems. He’d lost the loot. And there would be a punishment for it, worse than getting roughed up by thugs or even being thrown in jail for a night—

Someone hauled him back up by his collar, and before Naruto could get his bearings, Shigeru’s meaty fist was arcing into his face. It caught him above the eye, knocking him backwards.

Naruto blacked out as he fell, and only the jarring blow of his head against gravel brought him around again. He instinctively curled on his side. His vision blurred and his ears rang and something wet and sticky was running down the side of his face.

Naruto reached a shaky hand up to touch it, but beyond the curve of his hand he saw Shigeru pat his pocket. He was checking that the jade disk was still there.

Before Naruto’s fingers reached the wound, he curled his hand into a fist— This wasn’t over yet. He could still finish the job!

He pushed himself slowly off the ground, blood leaking into the corner of his eye, but he stayed focused on his goal.

Shigeru laughed as Naruto struggled to stand. The other two closed in, ready to take him down, but Shigeru waved them off. “That last one should have knocked him out. Tough little runt, you wanna feel some real pain then?“

Shigeru pulled out a set of brass knuckles from the other pocket, slid them on and grinned. “Come at me then, kid. This won’t take long!”

Naruto lurched forward with a weak punch. Shigeru swung, a streak of gold whizzing at Naruto’s nose, but Naruto ducked and threw himself at Shigeru’s broad chest. Naruto clung to the his jacket, clutching and falling as if he really did have the wits knocked out of him.

Shigeru grabbed at him, but Naruto was too close and too slippery. While Shigeru fought to grab hold of him, Naruto dipped his hand into the pants pocket, hooked a finger through the cool disk, yanked it out and flipped it into the hollow of his palm. It only took a few seconds, but it was enough time for Shigeru to regain control.

Shigeru clamped his huge hand down on Naruto’s shoulder and sent Naruto flying.

Flung down the gravel path, Naruto rolled and rolled, as limp as a rag. When he finally came to a stop he was nearly at the far wall of the compound. Gravel was in his shoes, his hoodie was twisted around his neck and the sky was spinning. But tight in his palm was the cool, smooth circle. He still had it!

Naruto moved quickly, pocketing the disk as the sound of footsteps pounded closer.

Now he just had to get out of here.

Scrambling onto all fours, ears ringing, and a pounding headache starting above his left eye, Naruto swung his gaze around the garden. The three wrestler-guards were closing in. One popped his knuckles, the other popped his elbow, and Shigeru stalked down he middle of the path. He rolled his fingers in the brass knuckles then spread his huge palms out to each side to catch Naruto if he ran for the house. Nostrils flaring, he looked like he wanted to pound Naruto right into the ground.

Naruto knew he’d be moving a lot faster if he knew his pockets were empty. And he didn’t want to stick around when they discovered he’d pulled one over on them. Again.

Naruto sucked in a breath, dug his fingers into the gravel and sized them up. One was shorter than the rest. That was his man. Naruto needed someone closer to his size if his plan was going to work.

He lunged for the short one and the other two were instantly on his heels. The man swung and Naruto tried to block it, but it still knocked him sideways. But when the suit closed in for another blow, Naruto threw a handful of dust and gravel up into his face.

The man’s punch collapsed into scrubbing his face, cursing viciously. Naruto ducked past him and tore out across the garden.

The two men took off after him with the third stumbling behind, blinking tears. “Get him!

Naruto thought he might be able to make it back to the open kitchen gate, but the sounds of a scuffle had the whole house on high alert. Lights flickered from the back of the house and reflected in the koi pond, and voices were already calling out in alarm.

Can’t go that way. Naruto veered off, leaping over shrubs and knocking down a stone lantern, skidded across the path and sprinted toward his only option left: the high garden wall somehow.

Halfway down the long side wall, a manicured tree raised limbs like green cloud puffs up and over the edge. It was close enough that if he climbed it, he could jump. He went straight for it, hoping the delicate tree would hold him.

Naruto scrambled up the tree as Shigeru huffed through the bushes behind him. Naruto climbed faster. The top of the wall was in sight when the limbs turned thin and began to creak under his fingers. But he kept going.

Shigeru swatted back at the other men. “Go around to the other side!” He pitched his jacket over a shrub, rolled up his sleeves and started up the tree. It shook ominously with his first step.

Naruto pulled himself onto the last branch that would support him. It arched toward the wall, but not nearly close enough. He’d have to jump. He stepped out, the branch cracked under his unsteady feet, and he eased back, heart pounding in his ears. Gripping the trunk behind him, Naruto looked down.

Shigeru was hoisting himself up with a broad mean grin, like he knew there was no way out but down. And Naruto had a sinking feeling he might be right.

Naruto gulped a last breath, shoved off from the trunk and took a running leap. Pushing hard, the branch snapped under Naruto’s feet and he flailed ungracefully at the wall, praying in that split-second that his forward momentum was enough.

Naruto hit the wall with an ‘oomph.’ His fingertips were just high enough to scrape over the top of the ledge and grab hold.

The branch flung back and hit the Shigeru in the face, knocking him out of the tree.

Gasping to get air back into his lungs, Naruto pulled hard, toed his way up the wall and threw himself over. He hit the ground hard on the other side and found himself in the middle of a dark lane. It was no more than a long stone corridor broken only by the occasional locked door leading to another clan compound and another hidden garden. There was no where to hide.

The two men exploded out of the nearest door. “There he is!” They tore down the pavement toward Naruto, who, still heaving from the wall, pushed himself off the ground and ran like his life depended on it. He didn’t know where he was going or even how he’d get out of there. He just knew he had to keep running and hope he didn’t hit a dead end.

The men proved to be smarter than he anticipated. Jackets flying, they ran fast and stayed together, keeping up with Naruto as he tore down Old Konoha’s twisting narrow lanes. But at some point they split off. Naruto’s heart almost stopped when he glanced back and saw only one guy.

That meant they’d made a plan. Their better knowledge of the streets meant one of them could head him off. Now he watched ahead and behind—

Sure enough, just when the walled alley opened up onto a broad avenue lined with shops and alleys and places to hide and Naruto thought he’d finally made it, the other guy came barreling around the corner. His arms were stretched out and hands open, ready to grab Naruto.

Naruto lunged sideways, missing by scant inches the fingers that swiped at his neck, and he stumbled over a curb. The two men were back on him, closer than ever. He turned onto the lane and ran down the crowded sidewalk, something he would never have done if he wasn’t desperate. All it would take would be one police officer, one security guard, one shop owner reporting a ruckus, and it was all over.

Just ahead of him, an old man was wheeling his cart back in before locking up his shop for the night. Naruto felt a little guilty, but this was exactly what he needed.

Running, he dodged the cart, but shoved hard as he went past, causing it to teeter and fall over, spilling the old man’s produce all over the sidewalk.

“Hey! You can’t do that— Come back here!!”

It slowed the two men by just a hair. But it was enough. Naruto was able to duck into the darkness of an alley two blocks down and lose the panting men. Then he slipped out through the faded red gates of Old Konoha and into the flashing lights, honking cars and tangled mess of Konoha’s modern streets.

Threading between the cheap apartment buildings, Naruto disappeared into the dark lanes of Konoha, beneath dripping air conditioning units and strings of laundry. Finally, he knew he was safe. This was his world, and they’d never find him here.

Naruto breathed in deeply and walked slower, still keeping to the shadowed shortcuts he knew well, but letting himself relax.

He sunk his hand into the pocket of his pants. A brilliant grin broke across on his face. The jade disk was still there. He’d done it.

He felt light, like his feet were floating a little with each step. This had to be one of the best lifts of his career. Not the easiest, not by a long-shot. But the luckiest at least. Stealing it, then pickpocketing it back again, escaping that Shigeru dude, then outrunning his buddies….

Another grin touched his lips at the thought of retelling this adventure at the club. He ought to head over there right now, even though he was early—

But skirting the edge of the night market, a waft of cooking food hit him. His stomach growled. His smile turned warm.

There was enough time for a little celebration before he turned it in.

He knew just where to go….


The girl behind the counter spun around and instantly frowned at him. Her eyes darted to a wristwatch clutched in her hand. Two white bags sat behind her on the cooler, their tops folded over and their sides filled out with square takeout boxes, ready to be delivered.

Naruto glanced down, stifling a laugh. She was still cute, even if she looked like having a paying customer walk into an otherwise empty restaurant was somehow an intrusion.

He didn’t care. It was a good night. He’d have fresh ramen and ponder the mystery of that girl. The thought of a warm meal and her cool green eyes was already filling him with delicious anticipation.

She worked fast, dishing up a bowl of ramen and setting it on the counter while he was still fishing out a few bills. He didn’t notice when she pulled a plate up from behind the counter.

“Wait…. ’Not naruto,’ right?”

Naruto’s momentary panic quickly gave way to confusion, then he saw the plate of pink and white fishcakes and understood. He couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that’s right.”

She slid the bowl over and he reached out to take it, only realizing just how bad his hands looked in the light. His knuckles were bloody and the back of his hands were scraped up and covered with dirt. It must have hurt when it happened, but he couldn’t remember exactly when. In the rush of escaping he’d simply forgotten.

“Did you get in a fight?”

Naruto jerked his hands back suddenly. “No, uh…. Mugged.” The lie came easily. He tightened his fists, testing them and discovering his hands were really sore. And now knowing what they looked like only made them hurt worse.

He gingerly reached for the chopsticks when the pretty cook leaned over to look under his hood before he could duck away.

“Is that blood!?” She peered into his face. “Hey, you’re really hurt, aren’t you?”

Naruto brushed flakes of dried blood off his cheek, as surprised as she was. His fingers trailed up to his eyebrow, which was now as tender as a bruised peach, and found a big, sticky gash there.

“Huh,” he said softly. He’d forgotten that the big guy had hit him. Didn’t matter. He’d take care of it later—

“You say you got mugged?” The girl’s voice came from behind the counter.

The steam from the bowl rose up to meet him, and his stomach growled as if responding. “Yeah,” he said, distracted by his hunger. He picked up the chopsticks again, just to get in one bite—

“Do you want me to look at it for you?”

“Wha—?” Chopsticks frozen over the bowl, he turned to the sound of her voice. She stood two stools down, holding the hinged counter up and looking at him expectantly.

Just like the night before, it took him a moment to figure out what she meant.

“It looks pretty bad. Someone ought to look at it.” She jerked her head to an old chair behind the counter. “I’m a medic,” she said confidently. But when her green eyes roved the dingy noodle shop, her voice thinned. “Er…. Well, I will be when I finish school. But I’m certified for first aid.”

Naruto set down his chopsticks, ignored his rumbling stomach and slid off the stool. “O-okay, sure….”

He wasn’t exactly sure what she was offering, but in that moment whatever it was was more tempting than the ramen.

He ducked past the open counter and went where she pointed, to a straight-back wooden chair she’d pulled away from the tiny desk, and sat down.

He waited obediently while she pulled out a white plastic kit from a shelf, tore open a small packet and wiped her hands with an alcohol towelette.

On the desk were the pile of books he’d seen the night before. Their spines spelled out a daunting study load: “First Aid: Physical Examinations and Emergency Care,” “The Maternity to Newborn Handbook,” “ElderCare: A Short Course,” “Math for Meds: Medical Dosage Calculations,” “Principles of Pediatric Care,” “The Atlas of Human Anatomy,” “Women’s Health Across the Lifespan,” “Public Health: Population-based Care for the Whole Community,” and “A Diary of a Field Medic: My Life on the Front Lines.”

He tipped his head to read the last one — “Free Clinics: Changing Communities One Life at a Time” — when his hood was suddenly yanked back from the top of his head.

Naruto gasped, but his hands weren’t fast enough to stop her. The girl saw his wound first, but her eyes instantly jumped to his cheek…right to the marks he was always so careful to hide with his shaggy hair and his hood.

Three jagged lines tore down each cheek.

Her face changed when she saw them…. She was so close, he couldn’t have missed it if he tried. Those pretty green eyes widened first in surprise, then alarm, and then all emotion was shuttered and she turned away.

He’d seen it a thousand times on the streets, before he stole a hoodie and learned only to reveal himself to others who were like him. Fear then distrust, then ignoring him as if he were invisible. Or glaring at him as if to say he should stay with his own kind. The outcasts. The criminals.

Naruto sighed softly, pulled up his hood and rose to leave. The pretty girl, the ramen…. It was nice while it lasted—

“What are you doing? Sit down!” She had a purple latex glove over one hand, a bottle of disinfectant, cotton balls and a bandage in the other. “And take your hood off. I can’t clean it if I can’t get to it.” Her voice was as firm as if she gave out medical orders every day for her job, not cooking ramen.

Naruto was stunned. He dropped back into the seat without a word, only remembering afterwards to pull back his hood.

She dragged an old stool in front of him and proceeded to scrub away the dried blood and prod at the sore spot above his eyebrow. Naruto winced a few times. The spot felt raw and puffy, and from the amount of blood she wiped off, the gash must have been big.

He didn’t speak, and she didn’t ask about his scars, but he knew she must have been curious, if not worried.

“I’m not a—” he started, but stopped. What was he going to say? I’m not a thief? Not part of a gang? He was. “I mean, I’m not going to— I’m not here to—“

“I don’t care,” she said flatly. “You have a serious injury that needs to be looked at.”

While she tended to his wound he stole looks at her. Her green eyes were even prettier close up, her pale skin had a trace of freckles, her pink hair hid just past the edge of her neck from here it was tied in her white cook’s bandana.

“So what are you,” she dabbed from the alcohol bottle and wiped it above his eye. “In a gang? Did you get in some kind of trouble with the law?”

The sudden cold burn of alcohol was a shock, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from automatically lying. “No! Not at all!”

She leaned back to look at him in the face, truly surprised. “Really?”

Surprisingly, guilt pricked at him. But it only lasted as long as the time it took him to come up with a story. “I, uh….run deliveries. Like a courier service. But at night. Yeah. This alley is a shortcut for me. And….your ramen always smelled so good, and I’ve always wanted to stop by, so….”

She sat back, lips parted in a silent laugh, and arched an eyebrow as if she didn’t believe him. It was such a cute look that he smiled at her, forgetting to try to be convincing.

“This part of the alley stinks! And it’s a shortcut to nowhere! I should know—” she said ruefully, but didn’t continue. Instead she focused on finishing cleaning the area around the wound.

There was a creak of someone stepping over the threshold, but before she could stand, they both heard voices.

“She’s not here!”

“No, I don’t think this is a good idea—“

“Come on! Now’s our chance—“

“We should wait. She might be back—“

“What are you afraid of? It’s now or never—“

Naruto and the girl exchanged glances. It was the two kids from the night before. They were back again to try and steal from her.

She swore silently, swiveled and reached for a ladle from behind the counter, but Naruto stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“Watch this,” he whispered.

He shot up from behind the counter with a deep roar. “HEY!!! Whaddayadoin!!!” 

The same boys from the night before — one black-haired, one blond, — nearly jumped out of their skin. The spun around, ran into each other, lunged for the exit and missed, nearly toppling the cheap ceramic umbrella stand next to the door, then jammed together through the door to bolt off down the alley.

Naruto turned back with a big grin.

The corners of a smile hiding behind her fingers was worth it. “Those kids, they’re always trying to—“

Her smile froze. Her eyes went big. She jammed a hand in her pocket and pulled out an old wristwatch missing half its band.

“The kids! Oh no! I completely forgot—“

She grabbed the two takeout bags off the corner and was about to run out the back, when she remembered she wasn’t exactly alone.

“I need too—“ She clutched the bags. “They’re waiting, and…. I mean, it’s just out the back— But I should lock up—“

“Go,” Naruto said quickly. “I’ll stay here.”

With a breathless “Thanks,” she dashed out.

He sat back in the chair, laced his hands behind his head, kicked his feet out and smiled to himself. His quick thinking had gotten him out of several tight spots tonight.

And he could thank that wrestler-guard Shigeru for nearly knocking him out, because it got him closer to her. And that made him feel as high as he did making any good lift. Better even. Because she wasn’t some object he’d been told to steal. He wanted this for himself, and no one else even needed to know.

But he did have to congratulate himself on that the line about the delivery boy. It was a stroke of genius. And the best part was that it was true. Well, mostly true. They told him what to get, and he delivered it. He didn’t hurt anyone.

But she seemed pretty straight-laced and no-nonsense. He had the feeling she wouldn’t be comfortable with knowing that side of his, uh…delivery job.

The back door opened and closed, and a lock slid into place. Naruto straightened. “Thank you,” she said earnestly when she walked back in. “Someone comes to pick those bags up every night—“

“I know” he said, smiling at her. She tipped her head, confused. “Last night,” he said. “Those kids came in at the front door at the same time. They know your schedule.”

He stood, but she pointed firmly to the chair and said, “I’m not finished yet,” and he sat back down obediently.

She reached into the top of the first aid kit and pulled out a butterfly bandage.

“Oh yeah,” she said, remembering as she peeled off one wing of the bandage. “That’s right. You said I should change things, mix it up. Not make it so easy for someone to know my schedule.”

Naruto nodded then leaned his head forward as she instructed. She pinched the laceration together, pressed the wings to either side of the cut and smoothed them down with her thumb. “There. Now you won’t have to get stitches.”

“Really? It was that bad?” He poked at his forehead above his left eye, feeling the small bandage in the middle of a dull throbbing area.

“Yeah. And now it probably won’t scar either—“ Her hands stilled, as if she suddenly remembered something she’d forgotten. And Naruto knew what it was. “Unless you scar easily.”

She turned away and busied herself with throwing away the used items and tidying up the first aid kit, and Naruto looked down at his cut up hands. Maybe she was hoping it was just an accident.

She wanted to know more about them. Anyone would, and why not? They marked him as an outsider. Maybe she was hoping it was just an accident.

“I don’t,” he said quietly.

“Don’t what,” she asked over her shoulder.

“Scar easily,” he answered, standing.

She turned back to him, still holding the first aid kit. “Oh, I see….”

They stood across from each other. He took in her heart-shaped face, so smooth and free of any marks. She was taller than he thought, now that they weren’t separated by a counter.

He sighed, deciding what, if anything, he should say. Then he would leave.

“I don’t scar easily. These,” he ghosted his fingers over his cheeks and tried to keep the edge out of his voice. “I didn’t do these.”

“Oh,” she said softly, blinking once.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “That’s why I took this, uh, night job. No one notices. So no one cares.”

She didn’t say anything. She wasn’t scared or disappointed or even impressed. It was as if he hadn’t said anything at all. And instead of giving him the cold shoulder or asking him to leave or like every other shopkeeper in Konoha would have done, she just turned back and pushed the first aid kit and the supplies back on the shelf. Like it wasn’t that big a deal. Like he was…normal.

“You could always get surgery, get them reduced,” she said with her back still turned. “There are a lot of cosmetic surgeons in Old Konoha. But it might cost you—”

Naruto lifted the counter and ducked under, considering her words. “I never thought anything could be done for them,” he said quietly. He didn’t know of a doctor anywhere in Konoha that would let someone like him through the door. She would never know about that though. As pretty as she was. Any door in Konoha, old or new, would open for her.

“Thanks…. Maybe I’ll have someone take a look at them.” Watching her, he felt the sudden urge to prove he was more than just his scars. “You know, I do alright making deliveries,” puffing his chest with the boast. “Pretty good actually,” he sniffed. “I’m my own man now….”

He was going to create some elaborate story about how he could afford a doctor’s visit if he really wanted to, but he didn’t want to sound ungrateful for what she’d done for him.

He needn’t have worried though. She just shrugged at his words, already slipping back into ramen-cook mode, and picked up a towel to wipe down the counter. She stopped when she noticed the uneaten bowl of ramen on the counter, now stone cold.

“You didn’t get to eat your noodles!” She reached for the cash drawer to refund his money, but he put his hands up, refusing it.

“You patched me up! We’re even!”

“Well…actually,” she cut her eyes to the side and twisted the towel. “It helped me out too,” she admitted. “I need to log several hours of community health assessments for my school program. So….” She pointed to a spiral notebook on the desk with “Konoha U: Health Care Case Studies” written in big bold letters across the front.

He laughed out loud. “Wait, I’m just a lab rat?!” Her lips quirked at the corners, compelling him to keep going. He eyed her books on the table. “So…are you studying to be a nurse or something—“

“A doctor,” she said firmly. “A field medic, actually.”

“Hmmm,” he nodded, impressed. But he still hoped to tease another smile out of her. “Last time I checked, we weren’t at war.”

She picked up the bowl and wiped down the counter where he’d briefly sat. “A field medic to practice out here. Not just in a cushy office inside the wall.”

“So these are the front lines then,” Naruto said with a laugh, gesturing to the empty noodle shop.

“Yes” she said with a seriousness that surprised him. “Well, not in here. But in the buildings around here. You’d be surprised how hard life is for them. There are a lot of kids, families and elderly here in these high-rise buildings. And none of them can afford medical care. And that’s not all. The gangs—“ She stopped herself and went back her wiping, bowl still in her hand. “You probably don’t want to hear all of this—“

“I do.” He smiled at her. “You’re passionate about this, I can tell.” She looked down at the counter again, embarrassed at herself, and shrugged one shoulder. She turned to take the bowl of uneaten ramen to the sink but stopped. “You know, I can pack this to go for you. If you want to heat it up later.”

Naruto seriously considered taking it. But he wanted something else. And going without ramen for one night was just the opening he needed.

“Tell you what,” he said stepping closer to the counter, dropping his voice a notch and smiling into her surprised face. “I’ll come back tomorrow, and you can make me some more.” He nodded to the bowl before catching her eyes so she knew he was serious. “Then you can tell me all about why you want to be a field medic. Are you working tomorrow night too?”

A corner of her mouth lifted up, followed by a pale pink bloom that rose in her cheeks. “Yeah,” she said softly. “I’m here every night.”

He flashed his most charming grin. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow!” It worked, a shy smile curved up her face. The blush on her cheeks deepened.

This time there was no snappy comeback or stern look. Instead, suddenly embarrassed, she wiped her hands on her apron and scrubbed a section of the counter she’d just finished cleaning, attacking a crack in the surface that looked older than she was.

Watched her distracted frenzy and knowing he’d finally gotten to her, a light, fizzy feeling took hold of him. It was the same way he felt after he finished a job. But this time, he hadn’t taken anything, not really. More like he’d discovered it — she really was a girl after all, beneath that hard exterior of the non-nonsense medic or the tough night-shift cook.

A curl of pink hair fell loose from her bandana and trailed around her neck, and Naruto thought maybe he’d like to stay a little longer. But when he jammed his hand into his pocket, the cool jade nudged his fingertips as if reminding him he had someplace else to be. He sighed.

At the door, he stopped, pulled up his hood and gingerly tapped his forehead. “Thanks again, doc.”

A laugh bubbled up before she could stop it, and she grinned down at the counter, shaking her head, refusing to look up or give him anything else but a sharp nod of goodbye. But it didn’t matter. Her laugh and that secret smile that no one else saw went right through him. He went out the door, grinning big and walking on air. He knew he’d be back. Every night. Ramen or not.