Tale of the Setting Sun

Chapter 1: "Hope"

"When the tree leaves dance, one shall find flames. The fire's shadow will illuminate the village, and once again, tree leaves shall bud anew."

By the time Naruto Uzumaki 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, he did start going out more by himself. He was quite 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. And after all, he'd quite enjoyed the feel of the sun and wind on his skin. The few times he had been out in public before, he had usually been with his caretaker, who always insisted on him covering his face with a black 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.

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 felt happy...until they slammed the door in his face, leaving him outside in the dust. 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 was quite shaken by that, and immediately returned to his home afterwards. Ignoring the dinner his caretaker had left out on the table, he 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 publicly taunted him with a blunt cruelty that only children knew.

Naruto observed this all and every night, stared into the darkness. He pondered his situation, trying to find an answer to the question of why he, as an individual, was targeted in such a manner. He wondered at first if it was because of his appearance; after all, when he ventured outside with his black scarf on, nobody treated him like an aberration, or even worse – pretend he didn't exist. He was treated tolerantly and almost fondly when he blended into the anonymity of childhood, just like the others his age.

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 so hated. He had examined his features quite closely at one point; his hair color was a bit unusual, but he had seen a girl with bright pink hair in the playground quite a few times, and nobody ever glared at her or said unkind things to her. 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, and 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 faint whisker-like birthmarks on his cheeks. But Naruto couldn't see how they were any different from how certain clans, like the Inuzuka, marked their members; for all he knew, this could've been a common trait within his clan.

That was another mystery that he had so many questions about: his parents. He knew that he was an orphan, and was the last surviving member of the Uzumaki clan in Konoha; his caretaker had told him that much. His situation was fairly common following the Third Shinobi World War and the attack of the Kyūbi (Nine-tails): his apartment was not too far from the orphanage, which teemed with children. And yet Naruto himself had not been placed in the orphanage, but rather, raised under a caretaker. Who paid the caretaker to take care of him? And why would no one tell him about his parents – as if it were taboo?

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 all of his vegetables, and he always obeyed his caretaker. And as he had reasoned out before, it couldn't be his appearance. However, something about his looks tipped the villagers off about who he was, so he realized that something about him – could it be the red hair? The whisker-like marks? – must have been a trademark of his clan.

The only reason he could think of why he would be hated on sight would be if his mysterious parents or his ancestral clan had done something terrible to the village before he was born. And then, they had all died in the war and the Kyūbi attack, leaving him all alone to shoulder their guilt and hatred. He had essentially become their scapegoat.

Once he made such thoughts fully comprehensive, he sat up in his bed and pondered for a moment, before pulling up the blinds. The afternoon sun was high in the sky, and its summer glow warmed his face. Naruto began to wonder how he could change his situation. He did not enjoy being ridiculed and hated, and sometimes, when he saw 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 and in fact, had rarely spoke to him at all, but she had never made him starve before.

Blearily staring at the empty table as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Naruto didn't notice the tall masked individual that suddenly appeared on the open window sill. And before he could do much else, the man had forcefully picked him up and jumped out the window. At first, like a wounded animal, he struggled in the strange man's grip, clawing at the man's chest. But he then realized that the man was wearing the porcelain animal mask and metal chest armor of an ANBU, and relaxed. As much as he was hated by the rest of the village, he knew that the ANBU were elite shinobi of the Hokage – they would never lay a hand on him without explicit orders. And he knew that no matter how hated he was, no matter how grudgingly considered...he was still a member of Konoha. So long as that was the case, they would never touch him.

Soon 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 almost looked 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 blue ones, and for a moment, he thought he might have seen a flicker of emotion within them. But then it was gone, and the revered God of Shinobi turned away.

Naruto learned several things that day. He 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 back to his apartment, Naruto was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't even notice the glaring and the hissed insults that followed him. He had always admired the ninja and how they were so mystical and powerful, just like the heroes of his childhood folk tales. He had thought he had outgrown his bedtime stories, but now that they seemed to be becoming a reality, he felt a rising airy sensation in his chest that he didn't know what to call.

That evening, Naruto watched the sun set from his window. As he did so, he wondered if going to the Academy would truly change anything. If he was right, and his clan had done something truly heinous, he doubted the villagers would forgive him so easily – even if he did become a full-fledged ninja. His small fingers, rested on the window sill, clenched into his palms, leaving behind red marks.

In that case, Naruto decided, he would become a ninja that they couldn't ignore or despise. He would become so great, his achievements would blot out the shadow of his clan's sins. He would become the most revered and respected ninja of Konoha, and become Hokage.

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