Tale of the Setting Sun

Chapter 2: "Loneliness"

The next morning found Naruto scanning his own appearance before the mirror: If he was going to become Hokage, he knew he should at least have the ability to make a good first impression on his teacher and his classmates. Thankfully, his caretaker had at least done the laundry before she left; now, he was wearing his best (or rather, least threadbare) clothes.

His hair on the other hand, was a completely different story: It was a spiky red mane that hung down to his neck. Rolling a lock of the bright hair between his fingers, Naruto wondered if he should trim it. He glanced out his window, and let go of the lock. He could see the Hokage monument from his apartment, and if the busts were accurate, the Second, Third, and Fourth had all had rather crazy spiky hair. Clearly, their hair hadn't impeded their rise to the top, and he figured that his wouldn't either.

In fact, he thought in a passing way, the Fourth's hair even rather resembled his own.

Nevertheless, he dug out a brush that hadn't seen the light of day since it'd been bought, and dutifully tugged it through his hair. Finally, with one last check in the mirror – smoothening out a nonexistent crease in his shirt – he left his apartment and headed to the Academy.

Before he entered the building, Naruto paused and looked up at the circular sign that proudly hung in the niche above the doors. The character for 'shinobi' was emblazoned on it in bold ink, and he knew enough to know that it was made up by the separate characters of 'blade' and 'heart.' Together, it meant 'endure.' It seemed appropriate considering the goal that he had in mind. Tracing the character with a finger on his palm, he took a deep breath and stepped through the doors.

The classroom was large with a high ceiling, and filled with rows of desks, stacked in an increasing, rising order like a staircase. When Naruto walked in, following his new instructor – a man with an old scar across his face who had introduced himself as Umino Iruka – a palpable ripple of surprise swept through the room. The noise level in the class sharply dropped, as dozens of pairs of eyes turned to observe him. Naruto didn't meet any of their narrowed gazes, but stood awkwardly in front of the blackboard. Offhandedly, he realized that he recognized one of the faces that stared back at him: It belonged to the girl with the large forehead who he'd noticed getting picked on a few times in the playground.

"This is Uzumaki Naruto," Iruka introduced in a ringing voice. At the sound of his name, some of the children began to whisper amongst themselves. "He's six years old, and he'll be joining our class from today onwards, so make him feel welcome."

"I hope we can be friends," said Naruto, forcing the tips of his lips up into a smile. He'd never had much of a reason to make one before, but he had observed from afar how smiles could lower people's guards. He thought he heard some snickers and maybe even a muttered 'tomato-head' but for the most part, the children only stared back at him sullenly.

Considering his introduction largely a success, Naruto found an empty seat next to another boy with a dark countenance, who idly rested his head on his hand.

It turned out that the class had been going over how to read and write several basic characters that he already knew, so for the first hour, Naruto had the unhindered liberty of observing his new instructor. Iruka had seemed courteous enough when he first introduced himself outside of the classroom, but he wondered what the chūnin truly thought of him.

Iruka certainly seemed jumpy about him; in the last ten minutes alone, his eyes had flickered four times over to where Naruto was sitting, and he had stumbled over his words each time. Judging by the sheen of his face, the man was sweating slightly as well, and Naruto had learned from first-hand experience that, if it wasn't from the heat, it indicated they were nervous.

From his brief personal interaction with the instructor, Naruto could already tell that Iruka was usually a proficient teacher. Discreetly looking around, every time Iruka fumbled over a sentence, he saw looks of puzzlement reflected on the faces of his classmates, confirming the fact. He returned his gaze to the chūnin just as the man in question looked up at Naruto, and their eyes met for a split second. Iruka gave no visible signs of reacting, and looked away almost immediately (mistakenly writing a different character on the blackboard as he did so).

But Naruto already knew. Though it was just the smallest glimmer, he had seen that same, strange look of fear and revulsion that everyone else in the village had whenever they saw him.

His spirits beginning to sink, he wondered whether he would be kicked out of the Academy after all.

After the lesson on reading and writing, the class moved on to chakra, and suddenly, Naruto found himself out of his depth. Apparently, there was something called a chakra point, and a person had three hundred-and-sixty-one of them. There was also something called hand seals, and the twelve basic ones were named after the horoscope animals. But not knowing what chakra itself actually was, Naruto could barely follow the discussion, let alone participate. From the sounds of it, it sounded like magic, but he'd always thought magic was mere fantasy. So what else could it be?

An hour of torture later, the class was over, and the students were given a short lunch break. As most of the other children filed out of the room, Naruto dawdled at his desk before approaching the instructor, who was flipping through a sheaf of papers on a clipboard.

"Iruka-sensei," Naruto began in a low voice, looking down at the ground. Most adults didn't like it when he looked at them directly.

"Yes, Naruto?" He heard the rustle of paper above him. Iruka's tone was casual, but Naruto thought he could detect a note of tension.

"Could you tell me what chakra is?" When the man didn't answer right away, Naruto looked up and hurriedly added, "The discussion was very interesting, and I wanted to join in – but, I'm still not sure what it is, and where it comes from."

To his relief, Naruto observed some of the tension leave the instructor's face, though he still looked perplexed.

"Well Naruto, chakra is a form of energy that all living things have. The energy is a mold of physical and spiritual, and goes around your body in a network. We ninjas can use this chakra to perform techniques." Iruka paused, before adding, "Do you know what a technique is?"

Naruto shook his head no.

"A technique is a skill made possibly by chakra, with effects like walking on water, exhaling fire, and creating illusions. There are all kinds of techniques, such as ninjutsu, genjutsu, taijutsu, and even the most basic one requires you to mold your chakra. Usually, techniques require a certain sequence of hand seals." To demonstrate, he put his two hands together and quickly made some signs. There was a burst of smoke, and suddenly, someone who looked exactly like Naruto was standing in front of him. Letting out a small exclamation of amazement, he stepped back. There was another burst of smoke, and Iruka was standing before him again. "That was the Transformation technique. It's one of the most basic ninjutsu techniques, and we'll be learning it when your class is a bit more advanced."

Eagerly, Naruto put his hands together and mimicked the man's hand signs. To his disappointment, nothing happened.

"Just doing the motions won't be enough, I'm afraid," said Iruka with a smile. Naruto's eyes widened at the sight, and the smile slid off of the man's face like sap. He coughed. "Well, off you go now."

Naruto left with his heart pounding. He couldn't remember anyone having ever smiled at him before. And unlike the smile he himself had given the class, this hadn't been an offering of goodwill – it had been the genuine article.

Feeling like a large burden had been removed from his shoulders, Naruto began to wander the village, looking for a place to eat that wouldn't chase him out. So long as he didn't get on Iruka's bad side, maybe he would be able to learn everything he wanted about being a ninja. And then, he would be that much closer to becoming the Hokage.

As Naruto passed by a small restaurant, a ninja with a face mask stepped out from under its flap. As the flap dropped down, the most hauntingly delicious aroma he had ever smelled came wafting out, freezing him in place. There was a big paper lantern hanging outside; it said "Ramen Ichiraku" in bold red characters.

As though entranced, before he knew it, he had lifted the flap and stepped in. Several of the villagers were already there, eating, and at his entry they looked up at him. Reacting on instinct, Naruto tensed, waiting for them to glare at him – but instead, their faces grew pale. Rising to their feet with a clatter, they all left in a hurry, leaving behind an array of empty stools.

Well, that was a new reaction: Even he'd never cleared a restaurant out like that before.

Feeling a chill run down his back, Naruto turned to the counter to find himself face-to-face with a stern-faced man in an apron. He waited for him to respond angrily, but instead, the man grunted, "What'll you have?"

Taken aback, Naruto's eyes flickered over to the menu and he stammered out the first item he saw: Miso ramen.

Less than ten minutes later, the most majestic bowl of noodles he had ever seen in his life was placed in front of him. Slowly, he raised his chopsticks to his mouth – and as warmth spread through his body, his chopsticks picked up in pace, and soon he was inhaling the rest of the bowl.

It was not too last, however. Hearing the stools beside him clattering once more, he looked up, and almost choked on a noodle: They were a rowdy group of children he recognized from his class at the Academy. Hunching over his bowl, he tried to shrink in on himself. But without his scarf, there was nothing to hide his hair.

"Well, what do you know! Hey look everyone, it's tomato-head!" said one of the boys, jumping up from his seat. His friends joined him, and they rapidly spread out around Naruto to surround him.

He said stiffly, "My name is Naruto."

"What was that tomato-head?" the boy said in a loud voice, cupping his ear as if he hadn't been able to hear him. When Naruto didn't respond, he dropped his hand and glanced over at his sniggering friends. "Nogi here says she heard you asking Iruka-sensei 'bout what chakra is."

"Yea, sensei couldn't believe it!" chortled a pudgy girl. "He told us after you left that you didn't know nothing and that," she sniffed, "we should help you out."

"Aww, does little baby need his diapers changed?" the boy crowed. He leaned over and swiped Naruto's bowl. "Does tomato-head want his mommy? Oh wait." He laughed and lifted the bowl to his lips. "You don't have one."

Blinking, Naruto watched the bully slurp up the remainder of his ramen. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the owner of the restaurant was preoccupied with another customer.

"It's not nice to make fun of people about their parents," he finally said in a mild tone that belied the increasingly hot fire that burned in his belly.

"What would you know 'bout being nice? It's not like you ever had parents to teach you," scoffed a girl.

"My parents told me to stay away from you 'cos you're bad," added the boy with relish.

"I'm not bad!" gasped Naruto before he could stop himself.

"You are too!"

"No I'm not!"

"Are too!"

"Am not!"

"Are too! Damn tomato-head! No one wants you here!" The boy lifted his hand up with the bowl still in hand. Not comprehending, Naruto watched dumbly as the bowl flew through the air and hit him on the chest with a crash, spilling cold liquid all over his best clothes.

"Hey!" The owner had finally noticed what was going on, but at the sound of his voice, the children all scrambled out, the restaurant's flaps swinging emptily in their wake.

Naruto stood frozen for a second, watching with wide eyes the oily liquid drip from the ends of his hair. There was a big black splotch now on his favorite orange shirt that he knew would never come out.

Regaining control of his body, he slowly bent over to pick up the bowl, which had thankfully not cracked. Placing it back on the counter, he hesitantly peeked up. The owner stared down at him with a twisted look he didn't understand, and flinching, he apologized, before lowering his head back down again. Putting some coins down on the counter, he left. Not daring to lift his head back up, he raced back to his home. Though no voices called out to him, the whole, long way back, he thought he could feel glares burning into his back.

Once he was home, Naruto robotically began to pull out some of his more worn spare clothes from the closet. All he could think about was how he had to quickly change and return to the Academy before the lunch break was over, or else he would get in trouble on his first day. If he was to become a great Hokage, he couldn't get kicked out.

It was only when he was zipping down his ruined hoodie that he noticed that his fingers were trembling. And then, as he wondered why they were doing that, he also realized that he had lost all strength in his legs. Letting out a small "oh!" he fell down on his knees in the dark room. Automatically hunching over on his hands, Naruto felt something warm and wet streak down the sides of his face and land with a plop on the floor.

In a detached sort of way, he realized with surprise that he was crying. He had observed before – from afar –people crying for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes, people, mostly children, cried when they weren't getting their way. Once, he'd seen a girl about his age burst into tears when her mother refused to buy her a stick of candy, and observed how the mother had given in. When he experimentally asked his caretaker to buy him a stick of candy, she'd wordlessly stared at him coldly, as though looking at a particularly disgusting insect on the backside of her sandal.

He'd never asked her for anything again after that.

Most of the time however, people cried because they were in pain or because they were sad. When a child fell over in the playground and began to cry, their mother or father would frantically look up at the sound of their voice, and run over. When they saw that the child had only scraped a knee, they would laugh in relief and place a band-aid over their injury. Then the child would feel magically better and go back to playing with their friends.

As he wondered which emotion he was feeling, Naruto began to feel even more strange. There was a hazy sensation creeping up his body and taking over. And then suddenly, against his will, he collapsed down completely with his face pressed against the ground. Someone was making a terrible moaning sound, and for several seconds, he listened in alarm as he looked for its source, before realizing that it was coming from himself.

A mixture of snot and tears was streaming down his face, and he began to worry about how he couldn't go back to the Academy with a splotchy face when suddenly, he realized that he didn't care.

He wasn't sure what this heaviness in his chest was, but he didn't want to feel it anymore. And if crying would help him lessen it, he would do it. After all, no one was there to hear him.

If he wanted to become a strong ninja, he knew he could never let anyone else see him crying, because the heroes in his book had never cried – but right now, he was alone in this cold, dark room.

Just this once, he thought, eyes squeezed shut and tears dripping from his nose.

A cold and detached part of Naruto thought that he should be pleased to have this privacy. But at the same time, he had never felt so alone before. He felt like he was the only person in the world.