Chapter 1 – A stowaway? Pirates? Noodles!
A young boy flung his head back, blond hair whipping around wildly in the wind, at the roar of a chaser overhead. The sleek ship tailed a larger, ponderous and deceptively fast carrier. The boy leant out over the railing, balancing, muscles straining to stretch out further. His eyes widened in uncontainable excitement, bluer than the sky he was on the verge of falling into. Both ships disappeared below the vessel the boy hung off, stories below and racing to sink into the distance.
The boy sighed and swung up onto the deck. The chaser had born the crest of the ruling clan – white and red, the Uchiha. For an Uchiha ship to leap into action, the larger one had to have been a pirate carrier.
'Oy! Uzumaki! You're not paid to stand there gawping! Get back to work.'
The boy sighed once more and picked up the cloth he'd dropped. The mahogany railing of the naval vessel was always dirty, which meant it always needed to be cleaned. Before he started he had the feeling that something moved in the corner of his vision, a dark rapid shadow, but he shrugged it off, his head full of air chases and dramatic get-aways.
He would join a pirate ship! He would become legend! He may be penniless and working for a pittance on a state vessel – a state which hung pirates on capturing them – but that just meant he had a way to go, not that he wouldn't get there.
Three weeks earlier.
Uchiha Sasuke stalked along the length of his rooms and glared at one of the many portraits of his father. Normally, the boy would appreciate the excellence of the image, the way the artist had captured his father – portraying the stony face, the ice-cold gaze, but today he merely stared daggers at his father's features and spun round rapidly. At the far end of his chambers he turned on his heel again.
He was not pacing. He did not pace. He was too collected, too controlled, ever to pace.
Faced with his fathers cold, black eyes once more he turned away.
Damnit. He was pacing.
The boy ran his hand through his blue-black hair. It was no use, it hung forward again immediately.
He wanted to hit something, to destroy something.
A flicker of red jumped across his black eyes - too quickly to be seen as anything more than a trick of the light.
Sasuke closed his eyes and leant against the wall. He took a deep breath.
Itachi wouldn't do that! What had he heard? Father must have done something . . . has it finally been decided?
His fists clenched, delicate, pale skin tensing to breaking point.
Why didn't my brother say no immediately? Why did he listen to that man?
A knock at the door brought him out of his jumbled thoughts.
He did not raise his head, but stared at the door through dark strands of hair. He made no sound, no move. I should trust my brother.
After long seconds without breath the door received a hard blow.
They're trying to break in!
The boy straightened and grabbed his cloak, his knife, his sword. How dare he? How dare his brother listen to Kabuto? His father's decision was law, was final, unchangeable. The boy stopped in his tracks. That he was being attacked meant his father had really decided. Sasuke was the heir.
The empire would be his.
He jumped out the window, vanishing just as the door gave way.
They would not find him . . .
Tuesday was noodle day in the kitchen. Uzumaki Naruto really looked forward to Tuesdays.
They made him happy.
Sometimes they had noodles and pork. Sometimes they were served noodles and beef. And sometimes they ate noodles and goat cheese from the highlands of the country of water, where it snows!
Each week he pronounced that meal to be his favourite kind of noodle dish.
But none of them were as good as the noodle's he'd had back home. That was the only thing he missed on his travels, the intoxicating smell of miso ramen wafting down the road, leading him inevitably toward Ichiraku Ramen.
As an orphan on the streets of the border city, Hartec, Naruto had worked as a cleaning boy in the ramen shop, lived in the attic of the shop and had been given free ramen. The noodle people had been kind to him. He would never forget that.
He would never forget Iruka, for that matter, who had instilled in him the desire to become a pirate and who had bought him his first bowl of ramen, introducing him to the ramen shop owner and his daughter – changing his life forever. Many a cold night had been spent listening to Iruka's stories of pirate captures and sky battles. Amazing tales of renowned buccaneers, of the three Sanin: unstoppable!
They had disappeared mysteriously many years ago, but their stories would always be told . . .
Naruto looked down as a bowl was placed on the table before him.
Ah, noodles and chicken tonight. Life was so good.
He lifted his chopsticks out of the bowl, noodles twirled round them, trying feebly to escape. He defeated them and opened his mouth.
The ship rocked violently.
Naruto's noodles fell off his chopsticks, falling to the ground. The boy looked up: murder in his young eyes, 'What – is – that – captain – doing?'
The rest of the crew looked around uneasily. They knew it couldn't be the captain, for even he had learnt to steer extra carefully on noodle day. He had once steered them 12 miles off course to avoid turbulence at dinnertime.
The crew gave wary shrugs.
The ship rocked again and many had to grab onto the walls or table to stay upright.
Naruto fell to the floor, clutching the bowl he had grabbed carefully before it crashed to the ground. He stood up, a storm cloud over his head.
A young deck-scrubber pretended to fall at this stage, purely to be out of the boy's line of vision.
'I'm going to the deck,' said Uzumaki through clenched teeth.
The captain of the Goat's Feather steadied the keel with all of his strength. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
They had been hit. Twice. And now there was no movement, no sound in the silent night. One by one the deck lights went out.
It could mean only one thing. They had been breached. He had recognized the flag, in that last second of light.
The man jumped in a panic as the bridge door swung open.
The captain groaned.
Oh no. Oh no.
The young, blue-eyed cleaning boy stood silhouetted against the lightning . . . bowl and chopsticks in hand.
The child bore no resemblance to the usually cheerful and clumsy boy they all knew.
Noodle night. First bloody pirates on my ship, then disturbances on noodle night. Could it get any worse? I have to do something!
'Uzumaki! This is vitally important! Can you understand me?'
The boy continued to glare.
Shit. Can he even hear the words coming out of my mouth? This is bad. The captain had no choice but to soldier on.
'You must help us! Alert the crew! Pirates are aboard! I have to send out an emergency signal, you must go to the hold: they are after secret contraband documents. They must not get hold of them! Burn them! Please, Naruto, listen!'
The captain was caught in the icy blue stare, unable to move. Very slowly, the child raised the bowl to the height of his chin, lifted his chopsticks and ate like there was no tomorrow.
When finished, his expression softened, became recognizable: 'Sorry, pirates? 'Kay, I'll go to the hold.'
He swung around and climbed down the ladder.
The captain let out a longgggg breath. He slowly released his grip on the wheel. He was safe. He now just had to deal with the pirates.
Hmm, the hold . . . the hold.
The boy, walking with hands interlocked at the back of his neck, stopped and turned around.
Ah, down there.
Naruto wanted to be on deck, he'd never been this close to pirates before!
But first he had to burn the docu –book . . . thingy for the captain, then he could go on deck. Maybe he could stow away? He couldn't strike a deal with the pirates, he had nothing to bargain with. He may have to beg.
Here we are.
At the end of the narrow stairway he held his lantern in one hand and lifted the door latch with the other.
There was a scuffling inside.
Naruto paused. The rats weren't that big . . . even on a naval vessel.
Maybe it was a cockroach?
He took out his dagger and moved forward slowly. As he hung the lantern on a wall-hook, he caught a glimpse of a shapely leg.
He paused in shock, his cheeks reddening ever so slightly.
There were no girls on board, and what kind of girl would survive in the hold? And what kind of girl would wear tight-fitting leather pants and those knee-high boots?
The boy frowned.
Not a decent one!
He began to look for her in earnest.
The lantern light danced wildly as the ship lurched once more. A crate crashed to the floor and a shape tumbled off it.
Sprawled on the floor, on her stomach, lay a dark-haired slender . . . person. The same pants, the same . . . boots, and a loose-fitting white cotton shirt. She raised her arms and pushed herself up . . .
Uzumaki's jaw dropped. 'You're a guy?!?!' He couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice.
The boy flicked his blue-black hair out of his face and fixed Naruto with a superior, sceptical gaze. 'Of course I am,' he said dismissively. The boy stood, dusted himself off and headed back into the shadows.
Naruto closed his mouth and realized he had to do something. 'Ne! Ne! Where do you think you're going? You have to answer me!'
The boy glanced over his shoulder, saying, 'Dobe,' the edge of his mouth curved into a slight smile.
'Hey! Hey! You! Don't ignore me!'
A quiet chuckle came from the shadows.
Naruto's blood boiled. The bastard was making fun of him!
But the hold was small. And Naruto had once had to hide out in it for three days, after the first noodle incident . . . his memories were hazy. Noodles had come under the door . . .? But he did remember that there was only one area in which to hide at the far end of the room.
Naruto reached in and grabbed a leg, pulling the boy out violently.
Damn, those are nice boots.
'Bastard, what are you doing?'
'What do you mean? What are you doing here?' The boy frowned as a thought hit him. 'Are you a stow-away?'
The pale youth's face broke into a wry grin. 'You finally noticed.'
Naruto stared. 'What does that mean?!'
'Stop calling me that!' The black-eyed boy's amusement didn't falter. 'Teme!' Naruto tried at last.
'I've been on board for two weeks.'
Naruto almost let go in shock. 'How? There's always someone on watch! How could you move around, how could you get food?' Naruto contemplated missing two Tuesdays. 'You'd die in two weeks!' he said in utter unimaginable horror.
The boy shook his leg free and sat up, adjusting his laces, tightening his boots. 'Sometimes,' he looked up, arrogant, 'the person on watch was you.'
He stood and looked at Naruto levelly. 'I could do what I wanted then.' The boy leant forward, his black eyes intense. 'Now go,' he said quietly, 'I'm waiting for someone.'
Naruto stared at the boy, his face contorted in thought. He tilted his head to the side: 'You . . .,' he said with revelation, 'were the blur on the edge of my vision.'
The taller boy rolled his eyes. 'Yes. Very good. Now think about this somewhere else, okay?'
Naruto blinked. 'Who are you waiting for? In the hold?'
The hold . . . the hold. The . . . The . . . Naruto brought his fist down on his open palm. The book!
Naruto spun on his heals and headed to the chest which always held the contraband goods.
He stopped when he heard yet another dry chuckle from behind. 'You're looking for the books, are you?'
Naruto's eyes narrowed. He faced the boy.
'You're too late,' the stow-away said, leaning against a tall crate, arms crossed, 'too slow.'
Naruto flipped. He lunged towards him, 'What have you done with them?!'
The stow-away side-stepped out of the way, arms still crossed, and leaned against another crate. 'Like that,' he said lightly, 'too . . . s-l-o-w.'
They heard heavy footfalls on the stairway.
Shit! I have to burn the book! But if the pirates are after it, I can bargain with them! I need that book!
They finally show up. How to lose the baka?
Sasuke turned his head. He could knock him out, but where to put him?
The young Uchiha ducked - the idiot's swing was noisy. He didn't even know that was possible.
The kid's wide eyes were strangely blue. Sasuke pursed his lips. Where had he seen eyes like that?
Sasuke stopped in his tracks.
Why had he thought of the cherub murals at the palace?
He received a sharp blow to the head.
Now he saw bloody cherubs.
He didn't even react to being hit on the head? The guy just swung around into some sort of funny fighting stance. Who the hell is this guy?
Naruto struggled to dodge the blows being directed at him. He was using all he'd learnt to defend himself on the streets of Hartec against the dark-haired boy, but this guy was fast.
Naruto turned as the door opened and without warning he found himself flat on his back, with the boy standing above him, dark eyes locked onto the pirate manically running towards him from the opposite end of the hold. The boy's eyes narrowed at the spastically waving sword.
Naruto forgot his own situation in the excitement of finally seeing a pirate fight! A real pirate!
The other boy's eyes narrowed at the unstable stranger. As the sword swung down – now centimeters from the boy's face – he smirked. The guy became a blur, ducking, turning and knocking the pirate against the wall: a winding blow to the stomach.
A snap made Naruto's eyes swing up to the wall above him. The pirate's sword quivered, embedded in the wall, halfway through the thick rope tied around a suspended cannon.
A cannon directly above Naruto.