The Night Market – 4 – The Chosen One

The fourteen-year-old blond shook out his shaggy hair, kicked his heel against the old crate and peered up 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 still, 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.

Naruto raked a hand through his hair and scanned the crowd for a good mark. There was an old lady with an unzipped purse. A shopkeeper distracted by a customer. Even a beleaguered boyfriend, carrying too many bags to notice his back pocket flap was open, leaving a wad of cash exposed, free for the taking.

But Naruto just 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 shoved off the crate and walked down the crowded sidewalks, numb to the jostling shoppers and noisy merchants without hearing them. 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, saying that he shouldn’t go out anymore. That he was just running away.

But Sasuke didn’t understand. Things always worked out for him. Anything he set out to do just came easily. It was never that way for Naruto. But this, this game of stealth, was what he was good at. He needed this.

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

He rubbed his neck, telling himself that it didn’t matter. Sasuke hadn’t been out with him to the night market for a full week. Tonight shouldn’t be any different, he thought bitterly.

But even as he said it, he knew it was lying to himself. Tonight they’d had the biggest fight they’d ever had. It wasn’t loud — only whispered viciously to each other out of earshot of the other sleeping 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.

It all started the week before, when the man from the Konoha Academy came to talk to them about their futures. It was one of the “perks” of being an orphan in Konoha.

For Naruto, just having easy access to the night market was perk enough. Sasuke, of course, disagreed.

At 14, children from the orphanages and halfway houses around Konoha were allowed to test for placement in the Konoha Academy. Not a normal school with books and paper and lots of subjects. But a trade school where they studied one skill, from age 15 to 18, and if they were good enough at it, then they could apply for jobs in that field when they graduated. Or, if they outshined all the rest, they could try for scholarships to another school, a real one like a college or a professional academy. But you had a better chance of seeing a shooting star through the night market haze than getting a scholarship.

The Konoha Academy was government’s idea of a ‘leg-up’ in an otherwise cruel world. And the orphanage kids knew it. From an early age they were told the academy was their only 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.

If they didn’t…then life would be a free-fall of odd jobs and no money. The pamphlets passed around by the thin government agent with the frown lines creased into his forehead, looking down at each child as if he were permanently unimpressed, emphasized what they could expect if they slipped through the cracks of a stratified society like Konoha. Life would be crushingly hard. Orphans were at the bottom. The academy was their only ladder out.

Many more colorful brochures went round, all of them titled “Careers in Konoha,” and all of them detailing some kind of service to the city. Most were the types of jobs that were unappealing to kids, such as trash pickup, sewer repair, plumbing, and so on. But the most popular was the police track. If a student won a spot there, the brochures promised that they could graduate to the real police academy, then get a job on the police force or work as a special agent or maybe even become a captain in the military.

Or at the very least get hired as a night security guard down at the fish docks, the government man added blandly, saying it was an overlooked career which was always in high demand.

But the pamphlets didn’t sway Naruto and Sasuke’s minds. From an early age, they’d had their hearts set on the police track. Sasuke being Sasuke, he scanned the blue brochure and quickly mapped out a plan for both of them: They’d go through the Konoha Academy on the police track, then graduate to the real police academy, and then they’d get on the force. That way they’d always stay together. Naruto heartily agreed.

A small sticking point was that the police track was also the hardest to get. Good grades, high test scores, and a top physical ability were required. But growing up Naruto and Sasuke had no doubt of their place in academy. That was their job track. It seemed like a foregone conclusion. A guaranteed thing.

The next night, the government man appeared at their study room door. He wore a grey suit matched the wall, and accessorized only by a clipboard and his perpetual frown.

Their Okasaan motioned to them to stand.

The man went down the line, looked at the clipboard and at each child, up and down, then 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. You’ll have three tests: two practice and one final exam. At the end of each month I’ll return and test you on how far you’ve gotten. The study courses are outline in the books. Study hard. Good luck.”

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

It was only when Naruto was nodding off did he realize that they hadn’t gone to the night market. It was the first night they’d missed it. Still awake, studying the textbook in his bed, Sasuke didn’t seem notice.

The next morning, Sasuke never mentioned the gap in their nightly ritual. 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 first practice 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’s 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.

That night, when deep darkness fell and the smells of the market seeped through the screen, 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, pushing back his chair. “Let’s get out, just for a little while.” But Sasuke shook his head. “Come on Sasuke, let’s go—“

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

Naruto looked at the back of his 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 in the market than trapped there studying.

“O-Okay…suit yourself….” 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.

Still, 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 retaining anything he’d read. Late at night, at the end of the first week, they tried one of quizzes. When they checked their answers Sasuke smiled proudly. But Naruto…. He quickly crumpled up his answer sheet and threw it in the trash.

But Sasuke was faster. He grabbed it.

The difference between them was clear. Sasuke had made a perfect score. But Naruto had barely managed to get one question right, and even that one had been erased and rewritten a few times, so that Sasuke was sure it was just a lucky guess.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes, surprising Naruto with just how angry he was. It stole the defensive bragging he was ready to spout out about how quizzes couldn’t cover everything, and that once they were police no one would care about how he filled out answers, just whether he could chase down a criminal or not, and he knew that he could.

Sasuke crumpled the paper in his fist, saying softly so as not to wake the other sleeping boys, “You’re not taking this seriously—“

“I am—“ Naruto whispered back.

“You’re going to screw everything up—”

“I’m not!”

Their whispers grew louder, faces closer, fists tighter.

“You’re out there, wasting your time, when you should be studying.”

“I AM NOT—“ a child flipped over on his cot, sleeping fitfully, and Naruto dropped his voice, “wasting my time! You just don’t get it, that’s all. I’ve never been good at that stuff.” He snatched his quiz sheet back from Sasuke, only to throw it in the trash again. “But I’ll show ’em what I can really do in the physical tests.”

Sasuke was unconvinced. “We’re supposed to be doing this together.”

“We are,” Naruto said, a note of triumph in his voice. “You’re doing it your way. And… And I’m doing it mine!” He smiled at his sudden inspiration, the idea sounding good to his own ears as well. “So now we’ve finished the first quiz. Let’s go celebrate.” He jutted his chin at the darkened screen.

But Sasuke only scowled. “No. I need to keep studying.” He dropped back into his seat, ignoring Naruto’s surprised look. “Do what you want,” he said, flipping open the book to the next chapter. “Just don’t screw it up.”

Naruto’s face went red. “I won’t ‘screw it up!’ Stay here with your books! I’ll still do better than you on— on— on all the tests!!”

It was a bold-faced lie and they both knew it, but at that moment Naruto didn’t care. He let screen slam behind him, punctuating his harsh whisper.

Hours later, walking through the night market, Naruto bolstered himself. He admitted that the paper tests probably wouldn’t turn out that great for him. Sasuke was always the one with the book smarts. In the physical test he was bound to shine. A real police officer would have to be strong and able to think on his feet, not recite from a book anyway. He was steadily growing faster and stronger. And he’d never seen anyone else at the night market with skills like his. He’d know, because he’d looked. He was really good at his game of stealth, maybe the best around. And that had to be good for something.

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

The tight knot in his shoulders he’d had since he left the orphanage that night finally began to ease, and he started to feel better.

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 a music seller’s tent by his two kids, adjusted his hand in his front pocket, giving away that that’s 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 rows and rows 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 second glance.

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 to replace the cd, apologized brightly — “Sorry! I already have that album!” — and slid the wallet back into his pocket. The man moved with him, never feeling the subtle weight returning to his pocket, and nodded politely before being dragged across the stall by one of his kids.

He never even turned to see who had bumped into him, a fact that Naruto always counted on. Most people didn’t bother to look up. They didn’t want to be inconvenienced. And Naruto knew that little quirk of human nature 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 turned and walked out, comfortable and serene. At the edge of the tent, he saw the father 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, Naruto 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, 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, 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 Sasuke and him fighting. It seemed ridiculous now. It was just the pressure of the tests. 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 expected, but Naruto ignored the heavy silence that seemed to have settled over them. They were at odds, for the first time ever, and each blamed the other. So Sasuke spent the day quietly studying. And Naruto dozed over his book, as was becoming his habit. That night, Naruto was happy to escape to the market, and Sasuke, accepting that this was his choice, 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 follow him. But he went on anyway. He needed to be out doing things, not staring at a book.

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, hand protectively clutched in his front pocket, obviously holding tight to his wallet. 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, just kept right on walking. Naruto strode off in the opposite direction, congratulating himself.

But two streets over when he pulled out the cash to see how much he’d hauled, his fingers went cold beneath the crisp new bills. Folded in the middle was a yellow slip of paper with a single line of slanted writing.

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

Naruto looked around in a panic, sure it was a trap. But the guy in the dark outfit was nowhere to be seen. Naruto scanned the crowds for a long time, looking for the dark hoodie, realizing belatedly that he never saw the guy’s face. His own trick had worked against him.

After hours more of both looking and waiting for something bad to happen, Naruto went home, extra cash still in his pocket. He didn’t use it, nervous that maybe someone was watching him.

But then again, maybe it was fluke, and the note was never meant for him at all. He shrugged it off and went home.

But the next night he didn’t make a lift at all. He just watched. There was no trace of the hooded man. For two more night he laid low, waited and watched. But after the third night his stomach growled as he passed a stall, pushing him to eat. He pulled out the stiff bills, and looked at them, waiting for something to terrible to happen. But it didn’t. He slid his eyes across the bustling market, watching….

At the end of one street a hooded figure peeled away from a stall and walked into the crowd. Naruto’s mouth went dry. He shoved the money in his pocket and rushed down the lane, trying to catch up but trying hard not to draw attention to himself.

But two lanes over, he turned in a complete circle. He’d lost him. Just as he was about to set off in a different direction, he caught the man’s silhouette in the music seller’s stall, hands in pockets, looking at the cds. The hood was still on. It was him, Naruto was sure of it.

He walked quietly up beside the man. The man, as if sensing someone, patted his front pocket and checked his wallet before reaching out to thumb through the discs.

Naruto had his opening, but he was suddenly unsure. He came even with hooded man and look at the rows of cds on the table, but he didn’t raise his hand to make his usual lift. He held back. The man never moved.

It could be a trap. Or there could be another note in there. Or maybe it wasn’t the note wasn’t even for him. 

Naruto opened his palm once to reach out and begin the lift, but he closed it again.

“Losing your nerve?”

Naruto froze.

The hood turned. A sheet white-blond hair of slipped out, partially hiding the pale blue eyes that were peering at him. “Well…go on,” the man said with a knowing look. “Do want to keep fishing for small change? Cause if you do, then take the wallet.”

He turned to Naruto completely. He was young, not ten years older than Naruto, and was undeniably handsome with his angled face and cool eyes. He wore the comfortable smirk of someone used to getting his way.

“But you could make a whole lot more working for me….”

He looked Naruto up and down, obviously not impressed with his orphanage clothes, but he shrugged a shoulder as if it could not be helped.

“Because I have something that needs done. And you’re the only one that can do it. That’s why I chose you.”

Naruto gulped. Fear overwhelmed any pride he might have felt. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh now, don’t be shy.” He tipped his head, lips curling into a secret smile. He was handsome before, but now it was dazzling. “I’ve watched you work the market. I know what you can do. Pretty amazing. But I think you already knew that.” He leaned closer, exuding confidence like Naruto had never seen before. He spoke as if it was already decided. “Now, I have a job for you.”

Naruto leaned away, objections immediately raising. “Y-You’ve got the wrong idea— I’m not interested in any weird stuff—“

The man waved his hand dismissively. “It’s a simple errand. Nothing more.”

Naruto backed away a step, still debating whether to run or not.

“Pays well too….”

Naruto stopped. The man’s eyes glinted, watching him as if he knew everything Naruto was thinking.

“That changes everything, doesn’t it?” He wore a smug smile. “Well? Will you do it?”

Money. ‘Pay.’ A job of his own. He didn’t need it, of course, but he was intrigued. Just an errand…. One that only he could do….

The man anticipated Naruto’s answer. “Good. Meet me at the corner.” He pointed to a shabby lo mein stand. “Tomorrow. Midnight.” Then he strode out of the stall.

Naruto was still rooted to the spot. He watched his back, mind racing, processing everything that had just happened. “Wait! I don’t even know your na—“

“Deidara, kid,” he said without turning. He waved a single hand over his shoulder, then disappeared into the crowd

Naruto said the name to himself and looked back to the stall without seeing. He didn’t exactly know what had just happened. But if that guy chose him, then he must have been watching him for a while—

Naruto’s gaze dropped to the rows of cds in front of him and he was astonished to see a thin black wallet laying on top of the disks. He looked around warily, thinking it may be a trap, but the stall was empty. He cautiously picked it up.

There was no money inside, only another yellow slip of paper with the same slanted writing.

“See you tomorrow night, kid. Don’t be late!”

Naruto shoved the paper in his pocket with numb fingers and left the empty wallet on the cds.


The next day, Sasuke was still buried in his books. So Naruto didn’t tell him about the job, deciding instead to keeping it to himself. Which proved harder than he thought. And if anyone noticed that he did extra rounds of chores to keep himself busy, then no one said anything. Sasuke certainly didn’t seem to care….

So a little before midnight, a nervous Naruto found himself standing alone on a dark corner opposite a run-down lo mein stand. He waited and watched. Then at precisely twelve o’clock a man in ragged black jeans and a hoodie strode up and ordered. Naruto squared his shoulders; that was his man. Naruto watched him order, get his food, and linger over the sauces, apparently stalling for time. Naruto thought he’d let him sweat it out a little bit before he walked over. But just as he was pushing away from the wall, the man snapped the lid down over his tray of food and strode away.

What the…. Was the guy just going to leave—

“Looking for someone?”

Naruto nearly jumped out of his skin at the smooth voice next to him. Deidara’s icy eyes sparked with laughter. He wore dark pants and a hoodie, and looked so similar to the man at the stand that Naruto did a double take. But Deidara was never there. The man with the lo mein had stopped to fumble with the lid again before rounding the corner. Naruto had seen the wrong guy. And Deidara knew it.

“Glad you came. Didn’t see you at first.” But the subtle laugh behind his words it made it clear he’d seen Naruto all along. “Come on, we need to get started.”

“No,” Naruto said with a braveness he didn’t feel. “I need to know what this is about before I go—“

But Deidara was already walking away. He seemed to expect some resistance and threw back a ready answer over his shoulder. “It’s easier to show you. Come on.”

Slowly, warily, Naruto set off too.

Deidara led Naruto to a section of the night market he didn’t find much reason to go to — the gaming parlors. Neon lights flickered everywhere, luring customers to come in and try their luck. Ten-cent pachinko machines, coupons for free meals, flashy internet gambling machines advertising big payouts or pretty girls waving from behind mahjong tables. Each shop had some gimmick to part shoppers with their money.

These places never appealed to Naruto. There was nothing here he could lift. He shoved his hands in his pockets and trailed behind Deidara till he slowed at a large corner pachinko parlor decorated like an old temple. The traditional beauty of the swooping roof, tasseled lanterns and swirling dragon gates were no competition however to the brash lights and noises coming from the top of the golden-painted stairs.

Deidara watched the entrance. Catching on, so did Naruto. Finally, a strapping man in white waltzed by the entrance. Clearly satisfied with himself, he scanned the street, waving in a prospective customers and patting a seat in front of a game as if it had been saved just for them. He popped in several coins of his own to get the game rolling, much to the gamers delight, before disappearing back into the sensory-overloaded gambling temple.

“That’s him,” Deidara said. “Norio Adachi. In his front pocket he keeps a small notebook. I need you to get it for me.” He held out a replacement, a red composition book like the kind used for school assignments, only smaller. “I need to get a look at his book. Five minutes, tops. Then I need you to put it back. Understand?”

He turned to look Naruto in the face. And Naruto nodded once, his bright blue eyes sharpening like the pale blue ones in front of him. He did understand. He was already going through the motions in his head, planning it out and actually looking forward to it. Deidara had been right. This job was something he could do. Only him. And it may be his most challenging boost yet.

The familiar excitement was already tingling through him.

“And don’t get caught.”

Now it was Naruto’s turn to smirk, but before he could fire back a retort, Deidara pressed a thick roll of bills into his hand.

“Go up there and play until you get the book. Once you get it, say you’re out of money and you’re going to get more money. Ask him to hold your seat. House owners like that, they know your serious about spending money. Come around the corner,” Deidara pointed a few buildings down, “and bring it to me. After I’ve had a look at it you can take it back.”

Naruto tried to act casual, like it was no big deal, but he kept squeezing the roll of cash. He’d never seen so much. Ever. It made him wonder just exactly what Deidara did. “So what’s in the book,” Naruto said, with his best worldly-wise air. “Pass codes to cheat the games or something?”

He had no idea, but he’d seen a few movies at the orphanage that involved stealing passwords from a big boss, so maybe that’s what was happening here too.

Deidara gave him a flat look. “Yeah. Sure. Don’t worry about what’s in the book, kid. Your job is just to bring it to me. Now go.” But before Naruto go too far away, Deidara added, “And that money is your pay. So the faster you get it, the more you can keep.”

Naruto’s eyes went painfully wide, while Deidara’s cool eyes sparked with laughter.

Motivated, Naruto made the lift after just a few games. He dropped a handful of coins out of pocket, grinning and embarrassed and acting like a young man with money to burn. Pleased to see such an enthusiastic gambler, the owner scooped up the money, clapping Naruto on the back. Naruto smiled up, thanking him profusely, and made the switch.

A few games later he announced he was going for more money.

Naruto strode around the corner, catching Deidara clearly by surprise. He was only halfway through his first cigarette, and looked up as if something had gone wrong. Naruto smiled, and Deidara’s look of concern melted.

“W-Wow you’re quick kid,” he said, shaking his head and taking the book. He immediately flipped to the last few pages of writing and ran his finger down the tight columns of writing. Naruto didn’t look too hard at what was there. He didn’t care. He’d done his part.

Suddenly Deidara snapped the book shut. “Take it back.” There was an edge to his voice. “I’ve seen what I needed to see.” White-hot fury had turned Deidara’s pale features even colder, giving him a deadly look that made Naruto swear never to cross him. He took a distracted draw off his cigarette, consumed by thoughts of whatever was written in the book.

Naruto waited for any further instruction, but when none came, he shrugged, slipped the book back into his pocket and left. Within ten minutes it was all over. He walked back around the corner again to see Deidara, back turned furtively, speaking low.

“No, I told you he’s the one. That’s why I chose him. Do you know how long it would’ve taken for me to sniff this out?” He turned back, saw Naruto and nodded to him. “Gotta go.” He slipped an expensive looking phone into his pocket.

Naruto noticed whatever Deidara was angry about seemed to have passed. He relaxed his shoulders and strode the rest of the way. “Finished,” he said, trying to sound as casual as if he was coming from the bathroom. But he thought the bit about the money might have been a joke. “So uh, about the payment….”

“Keep it! You’ve earned it,” Deidara said, the smooth confidence back in his voice. “But I have another job for you. Tomorrow. Same thing, just a few blocks over.”

Hands in his pocket, fingers curled around the roll of bills, Naruto wanted to shout for joy. But he kept his face as blank as he could. “Yeah. Sure.” He sniffed. “Y’know, I guess.”

“Right,” Deidara said, seeing right through Naruto. “Well then, kid, since this has worked out so well for both of us,” Deidara’s lips curved into a grin, making his chiseled face in the shadow of his hoodie look more wickedly handsome than ever, “I’ll meet you at the same corner, midnight, tomorrow.”

Naruto nodded, speechless, dazzled by that smile and that someone like him would notice a kid like Naruto, out of all others in the market.

And then that was it. Deidara strode confidently away. And Naruto was left to wander slowly home and consider the new people he’d just met, the challenging job he’d just pulled, and, unbelieveably, the roll of money in his pocket.

He wanted to shout for joy. He didn’t know how much there was, but it was more than he’d ever had in his life. And one thing was for certain: He couldn’t wait to tell Sasuke and prove him wrong. His game of stealth at the market wasn’t a waste of time. And this proved it.

Besides it was long past time a truce. Especially now that he had real money to show Sasuke and they could buy anything they wanted at the market.

However, a squinting and blinking Sasuke, roused from a deep sleep in his bed where his text book had become his pillow, was much less pleased than Naruto had expected. Naruto shined his tiny flashlight at the roll of cash, resisting the urge to shake Sasuke by the shoulders.

“Who’d you take that off of?” Sasuke snapped, pushing the book of the bed and pulling the thin sheet out from underneath him.

“I didn’t take it,” Naruto said, sounding insulted. “I did a job and got paid.”

More awake now, Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “And did this job involve stealing? We’re supposed to be studying to become police, remember?”

“Of course I remember!” Naruto face twisted into a scowl. They’d never called their nights out at the market anything other than a game. “And don’t say that — I’m not stealing! I’m not a— a— thief!

Naruto waited for Sasuke to agree with him, after all, he’d done it too. But Sasuke didn’t.

Instead he just laid back on the pillow, arms folded behind his head like he was waiting for Naruto to admit he was wrong. And Naruto could guess what Sasuke wanted to hear: That while Sasuke had been here studying for the police track, Naruto had been playing “thief” in the market.”  Well, Sasuke was wrong.

“It’s not stealing if I don’t take anything! Just borrowed, then put it back.” Sasuke looked like he wanted to argue but Naruto cut him off. “No harm done! And I got paid!” Naruto’s anger flared at the end. “And all you did was study!!”

That did it. Sasuke jerked his covers and turned roughly away in the darkness, muttering something nasty under his breath. But Naruto didn’t stand around to hear it. He stomped off, threw the flashlight and the roll of cash into the shoebox underneath his bed where the rest of his meagre treasures were, and flung himself onto the noisy mattress without getting changed.

So much for their truce.

After a long time, Sasuke sighed softly in the darkness. Soon after, he was snoring again. But Naruto lay awake, staring at the ceiling. The truth was, he wasn’t sure if he’d meet Deidara again. Some part of him was still distrustful of the whole thing, and he really wanted Sasuke’s advice.

But Sasuke’s disdain sealed that decision. Naruto knew this job was his, and his alone. Sasuke could keep his books and his tests. Naruto would make a little extra money while he could, before they went off to the academy.

He stretched back on the pillow, relaxing. He decided he wouldn’t mention the money, the job or even the night market to Sasuke again.


Naruto established a rhythm working for Deidara. He didn’t ask questions, he just went to the gaming parlors Deidara pointed to and lifted Deidara’s little books. And despite his shabby clothing, Deidara always came through with the money. He didn’t know what Deidara did, where he got the cash or what was in those books, and he didn’t care.

Deidara called it a job, and Naruto treated it like one. He didn’t care about any of it, as long as he got paid.

He never looked at the books, just assuming they were pass codes or something. Because every gambling house they went to had one man with a little book.

But one night, after Naruto had pocketed the book and was going to meet Deidara, he saw it wasn’t passcodes at all, it was numbers. Cash totals. In the thousands. A few of them in the tens of thousands. It didn’t make sense. What could Deidara read from these lists? They were just numbers.

The thought occurred to him that perhaps Deidara was choosing which one steal from. Maybe that’s what he did. Maybe he was a burglar, only he knocked over gambling houses. And now, Naruto was his accomplice.

Naruto’s fingers went cold. And when he went around the corner to where he was supposed to meet Deidara, the rest of him went cold as well. He stopped dead in his tracks.

Deidara stood a few paces away wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie. He looked like he would never be caught dead in a hoodie and dark jeans. Most startling was the blond hair, almost white, that fell in a wave over his face and hung back below his shoulders in a perfect sheet as if he’d stepped from a shampoo ad on the side of a bus. He flipped it back with that dazzling devilish smile.

Naruto didn’t move. He’d never seen Deidara in anything other than a hoodie. And he’d certainly not seen that hair.

“Something wrong, kid?”

Beside him, a red-haired boyish-looking man rolled his eyes. He wore a similar suit, but where Deidara looked handsome, his cherub-faced friend only looked bored.

Standing together, leaning against the dim wall in their impeccable suits, they both looked like they’d stepped out of some fashion ad.

The friend’s dark eyes went up and down Naruto once before turning back to Deidara.

His voice was low, but he made no attempt to keep his words secret. So Naruto heard every bit.

“This? This is who you’ve been blowing your horn about? A street rat?”

Deidara never turned to his friend, instead he watched Naruto. As Naruto grew angrier, Deidara’s smile grew wider.

“Any problems this time,” Deidara said to Naruto, as if his friend has never spoken.

Naruto was boiling mad. He strode up, book in hand. “No, of course not. There’s never any problem, is there?”

“Nope. There never is.” Deidara grinned like a madman. “I was just explaining that to my friend here. Sasori, this was the ‘little fox’ I was telling you about—”

“You idiot, don’t use our names!”

“Wha- I trust him! He’s the one!”

Sasori laughed like Deidara really was a madman. “Oh really? Then what’s his name?”

Deidara moved to answer, but stopped suddenly. “You know, I don’t know. Kid, what’s your name?”

Naruto was still pissed, but in the face of the two impeccably dressed men, he didn’t have much choice but to answer. Instead he just injected as much venom into his voice as he could. “Naruto,” he growled.

Deidara’s eyebrows shot up in confusion. “Eh?”

Sasori rolled his eyes. “See even this kid has enough sense to come up with a fake name.”

“No,” Naruto said, “That’s my real—“

“Yeah sure, kid,” Deidara said with a hand wave. “Did you get the book?”

Naruto fished it out of his pocket and passed it over.

Deidara shot a smug look at Sasori. “See, told you.” Sasori yanked the book out of his fingers without a word a ran through the pages just as Deidara always did.

Naruto didn’t like the red-head. And, with Deidara showing up in a suit, Naruto felt like Deidara had pulled one over him as well. Naruto didn’t like this feeling. He was the one who worked over other people without their knowing. Not him. He didn’t like being the one worked over.

He screwed up his face. “So, those books. With the lists of money in them….” Deidara and Sasori looked up in unison. “What are you gonna do…rob those places or something?”

They stared at him for one long moment, and in that stretching silence, Naruto had sense enough to realize that calling out men in suits who might be robbing gaming houses wasn’t the best course of action.

But Deidara burst out laughing, and even Sasori shook his head. “That’s what you— What you— What you thought?” Deidara wiped a tear from the corner of his eye and sobered. “So kid, how long have you known what’s in those books.”

Naruto cut his eyes away before admitting, “just tonight. It was folded open when I lifted it.”


Deidara elbowed Sasori. “See, I told you he could keep secrets.” Sasori rubbed his rib and snapped the notebook shut.

“Doesn’t matter,” Sasori grunted. “If that’s all he can do then he’s still no use to us—“

“Use to you?!” Naruto was incredulous. “What makes you think I want to do more? I still don’t know what it is you do! If you’re pulling their bank books to see which one makes the most money, then I’m done. I’m not robbing a gaming parlor— I’m not robbing anything!“

“Kid,” Deidara said with a patient smile, “why would I rob my own game houses?” Naruto’s face went slack. Deidara pulled out another tally book from his pocket. A small black leather one that was his personal book. “I’m checking the numbers, seeing which ones report an honest take….” He pointed to a modest sum on the one Naruto had just lifted and wrote it in his book. Then flipped back a page and pointed to a much larger number, circled twice. “And which ones are taking a bigger cut.”

Naruto mouthed a noiseless, “Oh.”

“If they’re stealing from me, or if they’ve got extra machines in the back, then they’ll don’t want me to know. If I drop in, they’ll show me the tally book from the office. But I need the one they keep with on the floor. The one they keep on them at all times. That’s the book that will show me the real picture.

“Like I said, it’s a job only you can do. And this one’s clean.” He gave the book back to Naruto. He hooked his arm around Naruto’s shoulder and walked with him a few steps. “Now go put it back then come back here, and let’s talk about other ways we can use that talent of yours.”

Naruto glanced sideways at him, uncertain.

“Trust me, ‘little fox,’” Deidara said with that dazzling smile that was at once convincing and unyielding. “I know what I’m doing.”

Even then, Naruto knew saying ‘no’ wasn’t an option. But the tasks were harmless and the money was good, so he was happy to go along.

Their routine changed up after that. Sometimes Naruto was sent in to lift a book. Sometimes it was to retrieve keys off a bartender. Or cash out of a till. And then he had to put them back again. Increasingly harder lifts with increasingly challenging returns.

Every task seemed designed to impress Sasori, who was always with them now. And eventually Sasori begrudgingly admitted his skill, even feeling comfortable enough to ask him to run a few errands.

Naruto thought Sasori was still gruff, and that he and Deidara were an odd couple to be in business together, but he could see the appeal. Sasori was restrained where Deidara was exuberant, logical where Deidara was impulsive. And after the initial distrust wore off, Naruto had to admit he wasn’t that bad. He wasn’t as friendly as Deidara, but his rough exterior had begun to fade with familiarity.

As the months pass, Naruto’s gig as the go-between for their errands worked out well. The money wass good, and he never did anything that hurt anyone. Just used stealth. And with every boost he got better. He was so smooth he knews he wouldn’t get caught. He may not wear fancy suits or run shops or gambling houses, but he really felt like he owned the night market now.

During those two months the practice tests for the academy came and went. Naruto didn’t do well, but he shrugged it off. He was now more certain than ever that those tests were to scare kids. They’d never turn anyone down unless they’ve done something really bad.

Sasuke did well, of course. But strangely Naruto no longer cared the way he used to. He no longer felt like he had to keep up with Sasuke. He had his own money, and he knew with confidence that his skills would help him along were book-learning could not. He was sneaky, and police couldn’t just learn that from books. He believed in himself now. And that had to count for something.

So when the class scores came back, and he was at the bottom of the class, Naruto put on his biggest show of bravado yet.

“Doesn’t matter! These test don’t mean anything! I’ll show ‘em,” he blustered when a younger kid let out a whistle at the low score. “Trust me,” he said, adopting Deidara’s confident grin. “I know what I’m doing.” The other kids gaped, and Naruto noted with satisfaction that a few were even a little jealous.

But not Sasuke. “Geez, shut up Naruto,” he whispered while they stood in line, waiting for the thin man from the academy to assess their scores. “Don’t screw this up!”

Naruto turned, anger blossoming. “Worry about yourself Sasuke,” he hissed back. “I’ve got everything under control.”

Naruto would have said more, but academy man was already scratching more notes on his clipboard. He flicked his gaze at Naruto, frown deepening, and continued writing.

There was no more time for talking after that. The final exam was in two days. It covered everything they’d learned so far, and Sasuke and a few of the younger kids were cramming in every spare moment they could. Naruto’s textbook was gathered dust under his bed.

He ignored their heads bent over the books, scratching out the practice tests in the back, and did extra chores to keep himself busy. He couldn’t wait till the sun went down. Then it was only a matter of hours until the rest were asleep and he was free and he didn’t have to think about tests or chores or anything else except the ‘mission’ at hand.

They were really glorified errands, but as a joke to pass the time, Naruto had begun to think of them like ninja missions. Something super secret and only assigned to him. Just thinking that way never failed to put a smile on his face, even while he finished mopping out the bathroom.

Among the errands over the last few weeks were a couple of pranks Deidara ordered on an old friend. Sasori didn’t approve. He stood back, arms folded, eyeing the quiet old residential area that had recently become popular with a younger crowd, saying the streets were too busy there. Deidara always shrugged him off.

Tonight was no different. A young couple walked by, holding hands, a bag of carry-out swinging from one arm. Sasori turned away automatically, Deidara lit a cigarette, and Naruto plunged his hands in his pockets.

“This is stupid. The kid’s gonna get caught out here.”

“No way, he’s an old man. Weak,” Deidara said before shooting Naruto a fierce smile. “Besides, the kid hasn’t been caught yet.” Naruto grinned.

He’d already been to the house before, on Deidara’s orders, so he knew to slip in through the back gate, creep down narrow space between the houses that doubled as a garden, dip his hand into the corner of the koi pond and fish out the key. Deidara’s instructions were perfect, showing just how well he knew his friend, so Naruto didn’t worry about this job. It wasn’t like they were stealing or anything. Just a bit of fun, pinching objects from his house just to see if the old man would notice.

And of course, Naruto was happy to show off his skill. He’d come a long way from stealing apples in the market.

Naruto crept in the back door to the man’s darkened entryway, unlocking the door without a sound. Deidara instructed him to take a hanging scroll one night, a brass figurine the next. Even an old metal paperweight with a line scratched through the design. They were nothing but trinkets, though Deidara called them the old man’s “trophies.”

Naruto delivered them all without a problem. The adrenaline buzzed in his brain, fueled by the amazement of the two men. Deidara said he was like a ninja out of some movie, and Sasori finally admitted that Deidara was right, there was no one quite like him in all of Konoha.

Examining the items, Deidara and Sasori laughed at how their old friend must be driving himself crazy trying to remember where he’d put them. Sasori wanted to return the items immediately, but Deidara always pocketed them, assuring Sasori they’d return them…eventually. But he wanted to make the old man sweat it out first.

Tonight, Naruto was to slip into his living room, find a low old desk in the corner and retrieve a ring. Deidara didn’t know where it was exactly, but the ring was in the desk.

Creeping through the empty room, Naruto realized this was the farthest inside he’d been. Light slanted from the blinds across a single round carpet on the floor. There were several pillows and seats as if he entertained, but the room smelled musty and a bit stale, like too many cigarettes had been smoked there. He wrinkled his nose. Off the living room was another room, with flags hanging over the opening. It wasn’t a bedroom or a kitchen…more like a workspace of some kind.

Laughter echoed up from the road and Naruto stopped, waiting. A leaf fell outside the blinds, its shadow shattering the straight lines on the carpet for a moment, then all was quiet again. He moved on to the corner where the desk sat. He rifled through it, making sure not move anything, and found the ring wrapped in cloth at the back of a drawer. His lips curled into a wry smile. No problem.

Dropping it into his pocket, he was out the door in seconds, locking it then replacing the key in the pond. With one wet arm, he dashed down the stone path to the gate, but he noticed the gate wasn’t closed completely. And he remembered shutting it—

A black wire shot out from the side, looping around his ankles, tightening and drawing him up and flipping him backwards so he cracked his head on a flagstone. He swung wildly for the wire but before he could free his feet, a big man came out of the darkness and stood over him, holding the end of the loop.

“Look what I’ve caught….” He jerked the wire tighter. “Thought you could steal from an old man did you?”

He stepped into the light, and Naruto realized he wasn’t nearly as old or feeble as Deidara had made him out to be. The man was much bigger than him, barrel chested, thick armed and looked like he could still pummel anyone into the ground. Especially a 14-year-old kid.

Naruto scrambled backwards for the gate, trying desperately to catch the edge with his fingers. But before he could use it to pull himself free, a bolt of white-hot lightening exploded in his chest. His arms jerked on their own, flinging the gate back against the wall. And then it was over.

His ears buzzed with electricity, his tongue felt thick in his mouth, and from the position of his head he could see upside-down out into the street, to the dark tree where he was supposed to meet Deidara and Sasori. The spot was empty.

Only when the old man jerked him up did Naruto realize he couldn’t move a muscle.

“Well, well…Deidara’s new pet. How fortunate for me.” He shook Naruto by the chest before letting him drop back hard to the ground. In his other fist he held a stun gun. “So…. You like doing his dirty work?”

Naruto’s body wouldn’t respond. He was alone, and the man above him was big and crazed looking, with scars along his face like he’d seen hard battle. Panic gripped him but there was nothing he could do—

“Of course, you’ll have to pay me….” The man dug into Naruto’s pants pocket, finding the roll of money Deidara had given him for a job earlier in the evening. “Well, well. Industrious are we?” He thumbed through the bills. “That should cover everything you’ve taken. I’ll deal with those two clowns later.”

The old man tossed the stun gun aside and kneeled down. “So…. The Little Fox, eh?” He pulled something from his pocket. “Then why don’t we make it official….”

A single long needle slid out from between his thumb and forefinger. The sharpened tip glinted like a talon.

Naruto gulped. It was a tattoo needle like the kind used on samurai in his old school books, showing their strength by enduring such pain. His Okasaan warned against emulating the old samurai and never get a tattoo, saying it was strictly forbidden in Konoha. Didn’t matter to him, he’d never even seen one except for in his books. But he remembered.

The thick needle flashing in front of his face was with the bamboo end was exactly the same as in those picture. And Naruto was powerless to get away from it.

The old man didn’t have a drop of sympathy for his plight. He grabbed Naruto’s hair, jerked his head back and slashed the air over his face. Naruto’s eyes rolled in their sockets. The old man waved the needle closer, and Naruto jerked harder, afraid the old man was going to gouge them out. But the old man just laughed, enjoying tormenting him.

Naruto’s fingers grabbed at the air, trying to work themselves into fists. He thought he might be regaining some control and even tried to speak. But the words were still lodged in his throat. The old man narrowed his eyes, realizing the paralyzing effect of the stun gun was wearing off.

He flipped the needle deftly in his fingers till he held it like a brush. “Well then…Little Fox. Let’s try this one on for size….”

Driving his knee down into Naruto’s chest, the old man forced his head back with one hand and began carving deep lines into his cheek.

Feral screams finally tore free from Naruto’s throat.


Across the street, hidden in view of the tree where they were supposed to meet up, Deidara laughed to himself. “Sounds like the kid finally got caught. Didn’t think it could happen.”

Sasori rolled his eyes. “Of course Kakuzu would get him. The man’s an old Akatuski. He’s paranoid as hell.”

“Why do you think I like screwing with him so much?!”

Another scream ripped through the air. Deidara puffed his cigarette and watched the angled shadow where the gate was open. But there was no movement. Only the cries of pain echoing off the buildings.

Suddenly it was answered by distant calls of concern. Approaching voices meant the outburst was drawing attention. Deidara went to leave, but stopped when Sasori didn’t follow. “You coming?”

A gut-wrenching howl came out of darkness, and Sasori’s normally stony face twisted with disbelief. “You’re just going to leave that kid in there?”

Deidara shrugged. “Kakuzu won’t do anything to him.” There was another scream and Sasori looked at him as if he were crazy. “I mean, he won’t kill him.” Deidara added dramatically. “He’s probably just giving the kid a tattoo.” Deidara smiled at the thought. “A free tat from the famous Kakuzu? The kid’ll probably even thank me later—“

Running footsteps were followed by the unmistakeable cry of a policeman’s whistle. Deidara turned serious. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Deidara flicked his cigarette into the gutter and turned to go. Sasori shook his head and glanced back at the open gate, but he didn’t disagree. With shadows chasing down the street, closing in on the source of the disturbance, Deidara and Sasori slipped away, leaving only echoing screams in empty lane behind them.