Tale of the Setting Sun

Chapter 1: "Hope and Ambition"

By the time Uzumaki Naruto had turned five years old, he had come to realize that a good majority of the people in his village hated him.

It was not an immediate realization: As the haze of colors and sounds called infancy slowly but inevitably passed, he first came into the awareness of his individuality. Looking down at his stubby toes and observing how they wriggled at his every command, he saw that he was his own person – his body and mind belonged to him and only him, and as far as he could tell, every other person that he saw possessed this right. All of the people in his village were the same as him in this regard.

However, he gradually began to see differences between these other people and himself. When Naruto first visited the village playground at the age of four, he saw many other children running around in the dust. Another young boy was chasing them making threatening sounds, and Naruto felt rather frightened – however, the other children were laughing as if they were having fun. When he asked another child what was going on, he looked at Naruto strangely and asked him if he'd never played 'tag' before.

When Naruto returned to his home that evening and asked his caretaker – a stern-faced woman with dark hair – about the game, she merely slammed a bowl of rice down on his table and told him to stay away from the other children. He didn't understand why the other children could play 'tag' together and why he couldn't, but his caretaker's hand was even faster and sharper than her words, so he shut up and ate his dinner.

But from then on, though he didn't approach the other children, Naruto did start going out more by himself. He was starting to get sick of the tattered book of folk tales that he had thumbed through since he was two, and felt that he was a bit too old for the cracked old wooden blocks he'd once fondly stacked for hours before. He was a whole five years old, after all. And besides, he quite enjoyed the feel of the sun and wind on his skin.

The few times Naruto had been out in public before, he had usually been with his caretaker, who always insisted on him covering his head and lower face with a scarf. She'd told him it was so that he wouldn't pick up any diseases, but now that he was exploring the streets of his village, he was beginning to have second thoughts.

Because wherever he went, inevitably, he was followed by an intense storm of heated whispering. He hadn't realized at first; even following the realization of his individuality, he'd never thought of himself as particularly unique. He'd read before in his book of folk tales that no two snowflakes were alike; and as such, so were people. But in the winter, when snow covered the village, there were so many snowflakes that he couldn't possibly distinguish between them. This, he realized could be the same for himself, and for everyone else.

And yet somehow, these people managed to point him out – a single snowflake in a flurry of snow. They pointed him out with barely disguised grimaces, they ushered their children away from him, admonishing them for walking too close to him, and chased him out of their stores.

The first time this happened, Naruto wondered if they wanted to play 'tag' with him and was about to open his mouth to ask...when they slammed the door in his face, sending dust flying in his face. Before he could get up, he heard a spitting sound, and he felt a warm sensation on his face. When he touched his face and looked at his hand, it was wet.

He immediately returned to his home afterwards. Ignoring the dinner his caretaker had left out on the table, Naruto crawled into his bed with the lights off and the blinds to his window closed shut. He stared into the darkness for the rest of the day, trembling.

All of the following days that he went outside ended quite similarly. As time went on, even the other children began to notice him – and unlike the adults, they went out of their way to taunt him.

Naruto observed this all and every night, stared into the darkness. After the initial shock had worn off, he began to ponder his situation, trying to find an answer to the question of why he, as an individual, was targeted in such a manner. He wondered if it was because of his appearance; after all, when he ventured outside with his scarf on, nobody treated him like an aberration, or even worse, pretend he didn't exist. If they accidentally bumped into him they apologized, and if he bumped into someone, they pet his head when he apologized.

Recently, some of the other children had started to call him 'tomato-head' because of the shock of red hair that framed his thin face, but he did not think that could be why he was singled out so much. He had examined his features quite closely at one point; his hair color was a bit unusual, but he had seen others with brightly colored hair in the playground quite a few times, and nobody ever glared at them or said unkind things to them. He had blue eyes, a quite ordinary trait, and though he was a bit small for his age, he was in no way deformed. He had counted carefully: He had one head, a face with all of its features, two arms, hands, and feet, and ten fingers and toes, just like every other child (some of the adults sometimes were missing a finger or a limb). In fact, the only really unique thing about him was the pair of faint whisker-like birthmarks on his cheeks.

Naruto had noticed that some of the village clans, like the Inuzuka clan, had physical markers for their members. So sometimes, he liked to sit in front of a mirror and imagine what it'd be like to have other people who had bright red hair and whisker marks on their faces. And then inevitably, his thoughts would turn to his dead parents.

He knew that he was an orphan, and that they had died on the same day he was born; his caretaker had told him that much. His situation was fairly common following the Third Shinobi World War and the attack of the Nine-tails: His apartment was not too far from the orphanage, which teemed with children. In fact, Naruto hadn't even realized that he didn't have parents until he saw for the first time an adult picking up one of the children at the playground.

Looking into the darkness, his thoughts unimpeded by jeers and glares, Naruto eventually came to a conclusion. Having compared his behavior to that of other children, he knew that he himself could not be at fault for the behavior of the village people towards him. He never asked for anything that he didn't need, he ate (almost) all of his vegetables, and he always obeyed his caretaker.

He briefly wondered whether he was just ugly, but upon hesitantly asking his caretaker, she'd snorted and told him to stop asking her stupid questions and to finish his soup. So Naruto finished his soup, and after tossing and turning in bed that night, decided he couldn't control whether he was ugly or not, and anyone who thought otherwise – well they were the stupid ones.

Despite his brave thoughts however, Naruto didn't go out the following morning, and instead remained curled up in his bed. By the time he finally got up and pulled up the blinds, the afternoon sun was high in the sky. As the summer glow warmed his face, Naruto dully listened to the sounds of the village people passing by below, the chatter of their daily life resounding in his ears.

"...pick up some eggs from the market..."

"...won't step a foot in the library, you know..."

"...he's gone for a week to Wind country..."

Naruto's eyes flew open. Wind country?

While he knew that he lived in Konoha, the Hidden Village of Fire country, the thought that there were other countries had never occurred to him. Yet thinking about it now, it seemed such an obvious thing. He'd never left the village himself, but he'd seen the gates opening and closing many times, and seen the travelers and merchants streaming in and out. Though the small glimpses of the outside he'd managed to get through the gates showed only a forest, he realized now, those people must have been headed somewhere.

It was then that a sudden terrible – amazing – alien thought came to him: Maybe, he could join them.

It'd never even been a possibility to Naruto before, but he felt himself quickly warming up to the idea. Since the people in his village didn't want him...yes, why not? Maybe he could just leave. A faint shadow of himself began to play before his eyes. He could imagine it: An older version of himself stepping with confidence through the gates and traveling through the forest. After a while, he'd find another village and be welcomed with open arms and to the sound of cheers and...and, maybe he'd even find other people there with red hair and whiskers on their faces, and –

With a loud resounding sound, Naruto slapped his hands on his face. Furiously, he shook his head. He was being stupid. He was an orphan. He didn't have any family members elsewhere, his caretaker had made that clear enough. And if he was this hated in his own village, when he'd done nothing, what were the chances of his being accepted anywhere else?

Turning his back on the sun, Naruto let his face cool in the darkness. While it'd sounded like a great idea, maybe leaving the village wasn't the answer. But if that wasn't, then what was? Was there anything else he could do?

Sometimes, he wondered what it was like to walk outside in the sun without being jeered at. It would be nice, he thought, to not have to wear his scarf. And sometimes, when he saw the other children leaving the playground holding their parents' hands, something throbbed within his chest.

The leaves of the trees in the hills had long since turned orange and red, before the answer came to Naruto from a rather unexpected source. On the morning of his sixth birthday, he woke up to find the room cold and with no breakfast on the table. His caretaker had always made him three meals a day, washed the dishes after him, done his laundry, and cleaned his small apartment once a week. She'd never had a kind word for him (in fact, she'd rarely spoke to him at all) but she'd never made him starve before.

Blearily staring at the empty table as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Naruto didn't notice the masked individual that suddenly appeared on the open window sill. Before he could do much else, the man had forcefully picked him up and jumped out the window.

At first, thinking that someone had finally decided to attack him in his home, he struggled in the strange man's grip, clawing at the man's chest. But he then realized that the man was wearing a porcelain animal mask and metal chest armor, and relaxed: As much as he was hated by the rest of the village, it was common knowledge that the strange animal mask men worked for the Hokage.

Sure enough, he was dumped unceremoniously into the Hokage's office. Naruto didn't remember ever having been in here before, but he could read the characters 'Hokage' on the desk in the middle, which's top was overflowing with stacks of paper and scrolls.

The Hokage himself stood before him. His aged countenance and wizened form almost belied the strong, unwavering eyes that observed him from below the white hat. Naruto quivered and began to look away, but unlike the villagers, the Hokage's gaze held no animosity or hatred. So he met the elder ninja's dark eyes with his own, and for a moment, he thought he might have seen a flicker of emotion within them.

But then it was gone, and he turned away.

Naruto learned several things that day. Though he'd never really thought about it before, he now learned that the Hokage had been his benefactor paying for his caretaker, and that now that he was six, she would no longer be coming by. He would receive a monthly stipend from the Hokage, but he would have to prepare his own meals and clean up after himself. And finally, he learned that he was to attend the Academy, starting immediately.

Running as fast as his legs could carry him back to his apartment, Naruto was so excited that for once, he didn't even notice the glaring that followed him. After all, the Academy was the holy grail for the children at the playground: Having a sibling in it gave you automatic bragging rights, and if you were going to be joining it yourself? Uncontested rights to the best swing, bar nothing.

For the first time in his life, he felt a rising airy sensation in his chest that he didn't know the word for.

However, that evening, Naruto watched the sun set from his window, and with the growing darkness, he began to feel a niggling sense of doubt. He'd never been allowed to join or be a part of anything before. Would attending the Academy really change anything for him? He'd always admired the ninja; their mystique and power made them just like the heroes of his childhood folk tales. But could he become like one of them? And if he did, would people stop hating him? ...Or was he doomed to be hated for the rest of his life?

His fingers, rested on the window sill, clenched into his palms, leaving behind red marks.

No, Naruto decided. None of that mattered. He would just become a ninja that they couldn't ignore or despise. He would become so great, his red hair or his whisker marks wouldn't matter. Whether they thought he was ugly or stupid – none of that would matter. He would become the most revered and respected ninja of Konoha. He would become Hokage.

Even if he couldn't own their bodies or their minds, he vowed, he would own their hearts.

A/N: Warning, this story was first written some years back, and the beginning parts are a bit rough. You heard it from me first.