Preview – The Night Market – 4

Preview: Chapter 4 – The Chosen One

The fourteen-year-old blond shook out his shaggy hair, kicked his heel against the old crate and peered through his bangs at the rainbow lights of the night market. He loved this place. He knew it better than anyone, mainly because he spent so much time here. But out of everything in the world, this place was his. He owned it, and he owned nothing else in the world except a few changes of clothes.

And those weren’t even his, really, just hand-me-downs.

He raked a hand through his hair and scanned the crowd for a mark. An old lady with an unzipped purse. A distracted shopkeeper.

He sighed. None of these would do. He had grown so good at pickpocketing over the years that those people were just too easy. He wanted one that presented a challenge. Something new. Something to keep his mind off of Sasuke….

He sighed again, raked his hair back and shoved off the crate. Even wandering the market couldn’t completely distract him. And that had always made him feel better.

Sasuke’s voice still rung in his head, telling Naruto that he shouldn’t go out anymore. That he was just running away.

But Sasuke didn’t understand. Things just never worked out for Naruto as easily for him as they did for Sasuke. And Naruto needed this. This was what he was good at, his game of stealth.

Naruto could just picture him, his black head bowed over the text book, studying into the night at their single desk lamp, scribbling notes and flipping pages. Even remembering the sound made Naruto twitchy. His hands clenched and unclenched, anxious for some activity, something to lift. But nothing presented itself.

He rubbed his neck, telling himself that it didn’t matter. Sasuke hadn’t been out with him in months. Tonight wasn’t any different.

But he knew it was. He’d left after the biggest fight they’d ever had. It wasn’t loud — only whispered bitterly to each other beyond the sleeping beds of other boys, until Naruto left in stony silence. The screen smacking closed behind him was the only noise, but in Naruto’s head, the whole argument replayed in harsh yells and slammed fists.

Six months before the man from Konoha Academy had come to place them in a career track. It was one of the perks of being an orphan in Konoha.

At 14, children from the orphanages and halfway houses around Konoha were allowed to join “academies.” Not normal schools with books and paper and lots of subjects. But trade schools where they study one skill, and if they were good enough at it, then maybe they could get a job. If not…then there was always odd jobs or working a stall at one of the night markets spread out around the sprawling city of Konoha.

But for most orphanage kids, academy was their one hope. Kids without a family name or a legacy or money didn’t dare dream for better. That’s not that way Konoha worked. It was drilled into the orphans just how important getting into the academy was. Their future depended on it.

There were many tracks, all of them in some kind of service to the city — most unappealing to kids such as trash pickup, sewer repair and so on — but the spot all the boys wanted was on the police track. If they won a spot there, then after a few years they could graduate to the real police academy. Or maybe even earn a promising spot in the military.

From early on, Naruto and Sasuke had their hearts set on the police track. Sasuke figured it out — from there they could graduate to the real police academy, and then they’d be on the force together. That way they’d always stay together. Naruto heartily agreed.

The police track was also the hardest to get. Good grades, high test scores, and a top physical ability were all required. But growing up Naruto and Sasuke had no doubt of their place in that track.

Now, Naruto wasn’t so sure.

Everything had changed three months before when a tall, thin man appeared at their bedroom door late early one evening, carrying a clipboard. Their Okaasaan motioned to them to stand.

The man looked at them up and down, then at the clipboard, and jotted a few notes.

“Police track, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” Naruto and Sasuke answered together in excitement.

“Kept your grades up?”

“Yes, sir,” Sasuke answered firmly.

“You healthy? Strong?”

“Yes, sir,” Naruto chimed in.

“And you’ve stayed out of trouble? Clean record?” They nodded vigorously, not giving voice to that half-truth. They didn’t exactly stay out of trouble, but they’d never been caught…so that was as good as a clean record, right?

The man scratched out more notes on the board, then pointed to a box of books by the door. “Alright, you’ll find textbooks and manuals there. Study them, there will be an entrance test in a month’s time. Good luck.”

They scrambled to find their books and took them back to their cots. They curled up that night with visions of what their future might hold, devouring the information until well after curfew.

That was the first night they didn’t go to the night market. Sasuke didn’t seem notice, but Naruto did.

The next day, Sasuke never mentioned the change in their pattern. Instead he set to memorizing everything in the book. He skimmed through the chapters, seeing the practice quizzes at the end of each one, and set a goal of passing them all before the big exam.

Naruto saw Sasuke’s dedication and agreed that he’d do it too. But book-learning had never come easy for him. Sasuke studied and studied, but Naruto’s attention soon waned. He looked at the window longingly, even though it was still light out. Sasuke tapped Naruto book with a smile, but it didn’t help. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t manage to make it successfully through a chapter.

And when the deep darkness of night fell, and the smells of the market slipped up to their room, Naruto thought he was going to burst out of his skin.

“I can’t do it anymore! My brain’s full! I’ll study tomorrow,” he said, stretching while Sasuke shook his head. “Let’s get out, just for a little while,” Naruto whined. “Come on Sasuke, let’s go—“

“I want to stay and study. I’ll go tomorrow.”

Naruto looked at his bent black head, feeling hurt and abandoned. He thought about sinking back into the chair and staying, but one look at that book and he couldn’t take it. He’d rather be alone at the market than trapped here studying.

“O-Okay….” He slipped quietly out of the room, hoping that Sasuke would change his mind. But he never did.

Not the next night. Nor the night after that.

Naruto made good on his word. He studied during the day. But more often than not he discovered that he’d fallen asleep over his book rather than retained anything. And at the end of the first week when they tried one of quizzes, the difference became clear. Sasuke made a perfect score. But Naruto…. He didn’t want to talk about it.

He shook his head, brushing off the memory. So the book tests might not turn out that great. But he was really good at his little tricks, and his game of stealth had to be good for something. In the physical test he was bound to shine. He had gotten faster and stronger, longer and leaner, and he’d never seen anyone else with his skills at the night market. And he’d looked. A real police officer would have to be strong and able to think on his feet, not recite from a book anyway.

With the whole of the night market at his disposal, it made Sasuke’s pressure about the tests fade into the background. Who needed tests when you could lift anything you wanted, whenever you wanted?

The tight knot in his shoulders released at the thought and he finally started to feel better about things.

Just then, a family passed into the stall in front of him, and Naruto knew he’d found his mark. The father, being pulled into the tented music seller by his two kids, adjusting his hand in his front pocket where he’d tucked his wallet for safekeeping. Naruto smiled to himself. Perfect.

The back pocket was too easy. Anyone could do that. But the front pocket, that was a challenge.

He strode casually up beside them, all attention fixed on the row of cds on the table. He leaned beside the father, stretching for a disc in front of him. The man stepped aside politely, giving Naruto room to shop. But he didn’t know that Naruto’s other hand had already dipped into the edge of his pocket, under the cover of his outstretched arm. As the man leaned away, his wallet neatly dislodged.

Naruto smiled into the man’s face. “Thanks!” The harried father nodded with barely a glance up.

This was where it got fun. Instead of leaving like any other common pickpocket would — snagging the wallet and splitting as fast as he could — Naruto stayed put, just a step away from his mark. He turned the cd over in his hand as if he were just another shopper.

He didn’t know if it was adrenaline or not, but he always got a faint buzzy feeling in his brain at this part. It was a rush. He was good at what he did, and he liked doing it. If he was discovered now, if he’d been seen or if the man noticed his wallet was missing then it was all over. But they never did. Naruto knew he was that good.

Naruto examined the cd in one hand, looking terribly interested in the song listing at the back, while the other hand in his pocket flipped through the wallet and tugged out half the bills. Then, before anyone was the wiser, he leaned back into the man again, apologized brightly — “Sorry! I already have that one!” — slid the wallet back into his pocket. The man moved with him, never feeling the subtle weight returning to his pocket. The father mumbled something polite before being dragged across the stall by one of his kids. He never even turned to look at who had bumped into him, and Naruto counted on that. Most people didn’t bother to look up, that fact would protect him in case things ever did go wrong. But they never did.

It was like he was invisible, just like one of the ninjas from their childhood stories.

Naruto strode out, comfortable and serene. But from under hooded eyes, he watched the man pat his pocket protectively, making sure his wallet was still there. And it was. Just a few bills lighter.

Smiling to himself as he went on, he shoved one hand in the pocket with the folded bills and raked his hand through his hair with the other. He strode close to a vendor, grinning broadly at the grumpy old woman running it. He pulled his hand from his hair suddenly, leaving it standing on end.

He smiled. She didn’t smile back, only harrumphed that he was passing by her stand without stopping and folded her arms over her chest. It didn’t dampen his mood however, because in the moment she was distracted from her wares, his hand had snaked out from his pocket, snagged an rosy peach from the edge of the table and slipped it back in the pocket. The peach dropped in easily, rustling the money.

Naruto grinned back at the old grump and kept going. Two stalls down, he pulled the peach from his pocket and took a bite. Juice ran down his chin. He didn’t know if it was really as delicious as it tasted…or if it tasted better because he had nicked it right out from under her nose.

He strode down the aisles, bobbing under the drooping awnings and enjoying the cool night air and the feeling that he was free to do what he pleased. Making a good pull was just the thing he needed to feel better.

He even laughed out loud at the thought of he and Sasuke fighting. It seemed ridiculous now. It was just the pressure of the tests coming up. But they’d both do fine. He had no doubt.

A thin old fishmonger mistook Naruto’s smile for a greeting and waved good-naturedly. Naruto waved back, making a mental note never to steal from him.

He breathed deeply, feeling above all the noise and smells and cramped stalls and people haggling all around him. It still felt like the magical land it did when he was a younger. Where anything was possible.

He never noticed the shadowed figure down a side street, leaning against a dingy wall next to a nameless door, smoking a cigarette and watching him.

The next day the rift had not mended itself as Naruto thought. Sasuke was quiet, studying. And Naruto dozed instead of reading. That night, he was happy to escape, and Sasuke seemed to accept that this was his choice. He let him go without a word.

Naruto wasn’t sure how he felt about that, walking down the long alley by himself, certain now that his best friend wouldn’t be following him. But he went on anyway. He needed to be out doing things.

Naruto wandered the market for several hours, looking for a mark that would offer a challenge, when one practically walked right up to him.

A man in dark pants and a hoodie stepped in front of him. He jostled his front pocket protectively, and Naruto knew this was his man. Naruto stumbled, jostling him, and while he apologized he pulled out the wallet slipped out a few bills and replaced it. The man didn’t even turn his head to nod. And Naruto strode off, congratulating himself.

But two streets over when he pulled out the cash to see how much he’d hauled, his fingers went cold underneath the crisp new bills. Folded around one was a yellow slip of paper with slanted writing on it.

“You’re pretty good. I have a job for you.”