The Night Market – 5 – Little Fox

“And the next time I catch you down here, Little Fox,” Kakuzu whispered into Naruto’s face, “I won’t be so nice.” Then he dragged Naruto out and dumped him on the sidewalk. “Now get outta here!” His livid voice resonated down the street. “And enjoy your new piece.”

Cafe goers and onlookers turned to the sound in unison and a police officer came running up before Kakuzu could duck back behind his gate. Pocketing the needle, Kakuzu straightened, smoothed down the front of his kimono coat and plastered on a bored look.

The officer ran over and hoisted up Naruto, inspecting the lines that were weeping blood down his cheeks. Shaking and choking back sobs, Naruto slowly stood.

“What’s going on here,” the young officer demanded.

“Just a simple transaction,” Kakuzu said easily. “The whelp has been pestering me for quite a while. Dropping by unannounced and practically begging for me to carve out his little design.”

Naruto swallowed a sob to shoot a murderous look at the old man. He was trying hard not to cry because it burned the gouges. But the tears came anyway.

The policeman eyed them both suspiciously, trying to determine if this story was true.

“He even paid me for the work.” Kakuzua smirked and pulled out the roll of money — Naruto’s roll of money — and showed it off.

The officer frowned then. “Is this true,” he said sharply, rounding on the boy.

Naruto didn’t answer. He scanned his surroundings, anger swelling in his chest. Deidara and Sasori had abandoned him. He was caught by their ‘old friend.’ Maybe the three of them were even in on it together. Was this why Deidara said he ‘chose him’—

“Of course it’s true!” Kakuzu grinned like a cat who’d finally caught the mouse. “Why else would he be down here every evening if he didn’t want some work done on him?”

Naruto blinked, tears and blood drying on his cheeks. He was caught. He couldn’t admit to a police officer that he’d really been nicking things from the old man, even if it was only a prank. He’d be thrown in jail, even for a couple of hours. And it would ruin his chances of getting into the academy—

Another thought crashed down him— The academy, the police force, his future…all of it— Gone….

Kakuzu had sentenced him to something much worse. And he knew it. Naruto bit back another sob.

The officer glared at Naruto, waiting for an answer. Cheeks throbbing, Naruto dropped his gaze to the cracked pavement. His shoulders slumped in misery. He refused to answer, but to the officer his gesture was as good as a full confession. He fisted a handful of Naruto’s shirt to lead him away.

Kakuzu’s smile widened until it was all teeth. “Wanted to join a gang this one. Even called himself the ‘Little Fox.’ So I just gave him some whiskers.”

The officer jerked Naruto hard by the shoulder, all previous concern gone, but aimed a stern look at Kakuzu. “Old man, if I catch you working on minors again, it’s lights out for you. Got it? You know tattooing — even scarification like this —“ he pointed into Naruto’s face, “is illegal now in Konoha. You may like ‘the old ways’ but times are different. Even if a kid like this does come to you,” he pushed Naruto, “you still can’t do it. Understand?”

Kakuzu put up his hands in mock contrition. “Of course! My mistake! Won’t ever happen again!”

The officer grunted wheeled Naruto around. The crowd of onlookers dispersed. “Where do you live kid? I’ll need to speak to your parents.”

Naruto sniffed and cringed painfully. The movement stretched his shredded skin. He dabbed at his blood-wet cheeks, tears welling up at the pain. “I-I live at the Konoha Home.”

“Oh….” The officer was quiet for a moment. “And how old are you?”

“I’m 14,” Naruto said, voice breaking.

The officer narrowed his eyes, putting everything together. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing? Associating with a guy like that?” Naruto’s shoulders sagged, and the officer jerked him along without sympathy. “I grew up in a children’s home too, you know. So don’t think you’re so special.”

Naruto looked over at him in deep surprise. He never would have guessed. But the officer wasn’t interested in making a connection.

“So, I guess going to an academy wasn’t good enough for you? Going to make your name on the streets instead?”

“No, that’s not what I was— I never would—“ But emotion stopped the words in his throat.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. The officer knew exactly where to go, even taking a few shortcuts. Finally as they approached the orphanage the man sighed. His voice softened a notch. “Well, whatever you were trying to do or be…none of it matters now.” He nodded towards Naruto’s wounded face but didn’t let his eyes linger. “That’s your burden to bear, kid. And everybody’s got one.”

Naruto tipped his eyes up at the officer, unsure of his meaning. In the light of the dank stairwell up to the floor that housed the orphanage, Naruto saw a huge mark across the man’s face. A scar right across his nose.

The officer glanced sideways at him. “You looking at my scar? Yeah, well this came from fighting those men you aspire to be like!” The man’s anger reignited. He pointed at the Naruto’s cheek. “But these things mark you for life. No one will even to hire you with that on your face! You know that?” He shook his head. “Geez kid, why’d you go and get it there. Only the gangs will take you now—”

“I, I—“ Naruto finally found his voice when they were at the landing. “I wasn’t going to join a gang! I want to go to the police academy and, and—“

The door cracked open and the Konoha Home’s sweet house mother peered out. But her round face immediately distorted into horror. She took an involuntary step back, clutching her chest at all the blood before she realized who was beneath it and threw the door open.

“Na-Naruto? Child, who did this to you?”

Naruto bit his lip, but he couldn’t stop the tears. “O-Okaasan, I’m so sorry— I didn’t mean to—“ Bloody tears fell off his chin in fat red droplets.

“Officer Iruka Umino, ma’am. Unfortunately, he did this himself. Or rather, he paid for it.” Naruto hung his head and sobbed quietly, but he didn’t deny it. “Apparently he had thoughts of joining one of the local gangs?” The officer’s tone had softened, as if he hoped he was wrong.

“No, he was going to go to academy,” she said pulling Naruto over the threshold and peering at his wounds. “Police track, if I remember….”

Naruto nodded miserably. The officer cleared his throat. “I don’t see how that’s possible now—“ But he stopped himself. “Well….”

Naruto looked up desperately, scanning his face for any shred of hope. But Officer Umino had none to give. Above his scar, his eyes held something like pity.

The house mother ushered them both inside and set to cleaning Naruto’s wounds. The office spoke about Konoha and its history with gangs…and, delicately, quietly, about how the boy might expect to be treated now….

The house mother tried to stay positive, but it was harder and harder in the face of everything the officer was saying. “What about his final exam? He was hoping to join the police—?”

Officer Umino shook his head.

The house mother’s sigh hitched. She placed her fingers to her mouth to stifle a small cry. “Oh….”

Naruto went numb.

“Well…good luck kid.” Officer Umino rose to leave and the house mother walked with him, stopping to talk furtively at the door for a few minutes, glancing back at Naruto several times, before she thanked the officer and he left.

Naruto didn’t feel anything. It was a different kind of shock than the stun gun. It felt like it wasn’t happening. That thing were just moving around him. Only the occasional stab of pain at his cheeks and drying of tears on his skin reminded him that this was real, not a terrible nightmare.

His okaasan returned and rechecked his wounds, wiping away the fresh ooze of blood. She cried and fretted, asking why he would do such a thing. But he didn’t speak. There were no answers he was proud of, and it would only hurt her worse.

It was only when Sasuke awoke in the middle of the night to find Naruto weeping alone in the tiny bathroom that he confessed what had happened — all of it — and that he knew exactly what the officer meant. He would never be allowed to join the police force now. It would be a miracle if any academy would take him. He was marked like only the gang members were. The officer said he didn’t know what life would hold for him now, except that one thing was certain, it would be hard.

Sasuke said nothing. And Naruto knew there was nothing he could say. Nothing could make it better. He had finally been caught…and this was a life sentence.

Naruto’s bandages were wet with tears. Without a word, Sasuke carefully peeled them back. They stood together and looked in the dim mirror as Naruto turned and inspected the scabbed lines stretching from center of his cheek back to the edge of his jaw — three on each side — looking exactly like whiskers.

Naruto’s chin crumpled. The movement hurt his wounds, but he didn’t care. Sasuke wrapped an arm around his shoulders and let him cry.

Their heads, dark and light, huddled together in the mirror, was what Naruto remembered long after. Not the scars or the tears. Just the two of them, together. It would be the last time.

Two days later, the thin man from the Academy returned and Sasuke took the final exam. Naruto, cheeks still bandaged, stayed away. No one mentioned his name. It was as if he no longer existed.

The following week, their round-faced house mother who had dutifully massaged ointment into the wounds in the vain hope that it might lessen the scars, pulled back his bandages. She sighed and rubbed her hand wearily over her head.

But there was more bad news. She looked away, replacing the ointment in the first-aid kit and throwing away the last used bandages. She spoke quietly, as if somehow it might lessen the blow, “Sasuke’s received his test scores. He passed. He’ll be leaving for Academy housing soon.”

Naruto nodded robotically. He knew Sasuke would succeed. He never had a doubt. Things always worked out for him.

Naruto turned to look in the mirror. The scabs were gone, and in their place were jagged pink lines. Fresh scars. They puffed thickly with new pink skin. There was no hiding them now.

“They’ve healed,” she said, sadness beneath her words, as she looked in the mirror behind him.

Naruto knew what she wouldn’t say. Soon he would have to leave too. They were aging out of the orphanage. At fifteen they were supposed to enter into academy and another child would take their place. Another child who desperately needed their clean bed and warm meals and place to call home. But for Naruto, the future was as shattered as the face looking back at him.

Naruto turned away without a word, leaving his worried okaasan standing there, clutching her hands. He stopped at the door. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “For everything.”

She dabbed tears from the corner of her eyes. But there was nothing either of them could do.

Sasuke left two days later. Naruto knew it was cowardly, but he stayed away, hiding on the roof until he was certain the Academy kids had gone. He couldn’t bear the looks, the pity. He couldn’t bear the thought of Sasuke wanting to save him again. When there was no way to be saved.

That night, lying on the roof trying to pick out stars through the haze, he realized the allure of the night market had left him. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he wished he could just stay there. He would never go to the night market again if he could just climb back downstairs and find Sasuke still in the bed beside his. Tears leaked into his hair. But just like Sasuke, their time at the orphanage was gone too.

Naruto was certain of nothing in his life now, save for one thing: He couldn’t stay here. Technically, they couldn’t ask him to leave until his fifteenth birthday. But that was still months away. And couldn’t bear the thought of being there without Sasuke, waiting for his birthday like an execution date.

So he slipped back into his room to pack. Sasuke’s bed was flat and empty. And Naruto’s heart ached. He had put on a fresh set of clothes and shoved whatever money he had in his pocket before he realized there nothing else to pack. It was foolish to take a box of treasures when he didn’t know where he was going. He cracked it open, peering at the trinkets that had once been so important, then so slid it under another sleeping boy’s bed. He left the text book under his own bed, hoping it would rot there.

And for the last time, Naruto pushed out the screen, climbed down the well-worn foot holds, and followed the trail of gutter water to the market, leaving the orphanage and his old life behind him.