Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or its characters Kishimoto does.
Hey guys, I guess it's been a while huh? Sorry for the absurdly huge delay.
Chapter 8: An Uncomfortable Homecoming
Keep completely calm. No thought, no emotion, only focus.
This is stupid.
No! Focus! Must not lose focus!
My foot itches.
Don't get distracted. And don't scratch it either. Stay perfectly still. Perfectly still...
Naruto's foot gave a slight, involuntary twitch, disturbing the giant leaf upon which he was supposed to be meditating and sending him sliding inexorably toward the drop-off. Panic rose up inside of him as his hands scrambled to find purchase, but the leaf had a smooth, waxy coating which provided no handholds and little friction. With a shout of dismay, he slid off the end and fell several meters to the ground, landing in a festering pool of mud.
"Dammit!" he complained as he struggled to pull giant clumps of goo from his now tangled long hair.
Jiraiya, with only the tiniest hint of arrogance in his voice, called down to his apprentice, "So are we having a bad day?"
He had somehow managed to remain motionless on his leaf for two hours.
"Isn't this whole meditating thing supposed to help me control my anger? It's kinda having the opposite effect, in case you haven't noticed. Why can't you just teach me a new jutsu or something?"
Up on his perch, Jiraiya was beginning grow annoyed with his student's lack of discipline. Still, I know how to control him. "Sage," he called down. Naruto only muttered mutinously at the word. He's that frustrated? Guess I'll have to change tactics. "Ramen."
Naruto jumped to his feet in an instant, his discontent having vanished the moment his godfather mentioned food. "Ramen, really? I can have ramen?"
"If you can manage to stay still for half an hour, I'll ask Grandma Shima to make some for you. How does that sound?"
The boy needed no further encouragement. He let loose a cheer which echoed across the entire mountain, and climbed his way back up to the leaf.
From Shima's tone of voice, it seemed as though the word was a disgusting swear, never to be uttered in her kitchen. "You'll be eating grasshopper stew tonight, and you'll be grateful for it, too. Insects are packed with nutrients, unlike those foul noodles you humans like. You'll be a shrimp forever if you don't get any protein. Kids these days..."
Naruto thought it a bit rich for Grandma Shima to call him a shrimp, when she didn't even reach his knee. He turned to cast Jiraiya a traitorous look. He had fulfilled his end of the bargain, now where was his ramen? The pervy sage merely shrugged helplessly. Sighing in dismay, Naruto awkwardly took a seat at the only table in the room, one that was far too small for human usage, and resigned himself to yet another meal of insects and tubers.
"Hey, Grandpa Jiraiya?"
The old man looked up from his plate of freshly dug up roots and raised an eyebrow, indicating that he was listening.
"Why do I have to learn to do this meditation thing anyways? I mean, I know it's about controlling the fox and all, but it didn't seem all that evil or anything when I talked to it-"
Nobody else at the table had been talking, but their silence suddenly became more profound, seeming to solidify like ice at Naruto's words.
"-after that ninja guy knocked me out. That fox did seem kinda creepy, but..." His voice trailed off when he noticed his elders' expressions. Jiraiya and Fukasaku cast ominous glances at each other, while Shima wore a look of worry. A grasshopper on one of the plates took advantage of the momentary inattentiveness to jump out the window to safety.
Jiraiya took a deep breath. "What you have to understand, Naruto, is that the fox isn't some poor misunderstood creature that needs to eat and sleep like any other animal. It's a living mass of bloodthirsty, hateful chakra. If it's being nice to you, it probably has some ulterior motive. Do not trust it, and whatever you do, do not attempt to draw on its power." He spoke heavily, as though he regretted uttering each word.
Naruto placed a hand on his stomach, suddenly feeling ill, and for once not because of the contents of his plate. Almost any talk about the fox these days made him uncomfortable.
"Uh, say Naruto," said Jiraiya in a wildly transparent attempt to break the tension, "I hear you let a ninja sneak up on you during that mission. What's up with that? I thought I trained you well enough that you wouldn't make some kind of rookie mistake." He tried to insert a joking tone into his voice, but his feeble humor did nothing to lighten the atmosphere.
"Hey, it was my first time in a real battle, and I was distracted. I thought Hinata might have been dead!" he replied indignantly.
Well at least he was distracted by Hinata rather than Shino. Jiraiya paused for a moment to shudder at the unhappy alternative, then quickly pushed on. "So, how about I teach you a new jutsu that can make use of your meditation, and prevent people from catching you off-guard like that?"
A look of mild interest appeared on Naruto's face. Normally, he would jump up and down when a new jutsu was mentioned, but the Jiraiya supposed that this reaction was the best he could have realistically expected given the circumstances.
"See, your teammates are both good at sensory techniques. Hinata has her byakugan, and Shino has his insects, but you don't really have anything to match those abilities. This jutsu can be used to detect any enemies that come your way. Technically, it doesn't require meditation, but it will certainly make the jutsu easier to maintain for long periods of time."
What interest there had been slid from Naruto's face. Clearly he was disappointed that this technique didn't make lots of light, sound, and most importantly of all, mass destruction.
Oh well, Jiraiya thought, this will come in useful, even if it won't be all that exciting.
Hinata and Shino stumbled along the road back to their homes after yet another exhausting day of training with Kurenai-sensei.
"Thanks for helping me with my new jutsu today, Shino. I think it's almost ready now."
"Hinata." Shino said. Hinata jumped in surprise; she had not been expecting a response from him, and it was only the third time that day that he had spoken. "In the forest, when we were fighting those thieves and Naruto... changed... did you experience any hallucinations?"
Her chest tightened when the memory she had tried so hard to suppress drifted back to the surface. "Yes," she muttered.
"And did any of those visions include a fox?"
What a strange question. They were all just- Hinata's train of thought came to an unexpected halt. Now that Shino mentioned it... rows of teeth... claws... fiery red hairs which she suddenly understood to be fur... "Yes," she said again. "Why do you ask though?"
But Shino had once again retreated into his usual silence, and he remained deep in thought until their path split off to their respective homes.
Kurenai lay collapsed in the hard wooden chair, feeling as old as the Hokage in front of her.
"So how is your team holding together with Naruto gone?"
"They're doing well. At least that's how it seems at a glance, but they're still troubled by what happened. I am too, at that." She massaged her temples. "I swear I'm getting more and more paranoid with each passing day. I'm half expecting them to run away when Naruto finally returns."
Sarutobi joined her in a weary sigh. This was almost certainly as unsolvable a problem as he had ever seen. The jinchuuriki made this world so much more complicated than it had any business being. He glanced at the paperwork on his desk, thinking for one absurd moment that it could somehow solve his problems. And to his delight and near shock, two words on the topmost document jumped out to fulfill his desperate search.
"It's perfect!" He shouted, literally jumping from his seat as he did so.
"What is?" Kurenai was giving him a look that was clearly questioning his sanity.
"The Chunin Exams! Don't you see? You could enter your team in the exams!"
If Kurenai had not been wondering about the state of Hokage's mind before, she certainly was now. "And why would I do that? Surely you've realized from what I've said that they won't have the necessary teamwork abilities to make it through the Forest of Death."
"Exactly." Sarutobi said triumphantly. Yuhi looked as though she were on the edge of declaring him as being senile, but he ignored it in his delight. "They'll either learn to work as a team, or-"
Kurenai jumped from her seat as well, the realization of what he was suggesting dawning upon her. She was not sharing in the Hokage's enthusiasm, however. "They'll learn to work as a team, or they'll die! It would be madness to send them in as they are now! They might get past the written portion, but it's called the Forest of Death for a reason!"
"They won't die," the old fool scoffed. "Think about who's on your team. You've got a Hyuga, an Aburame, and the apprentice of a Legendary Sannin. They'll be able to handle whatever comes their way."
There was no arguing with that statement, but still...
Sarutobi spoke again before she could muster a counter argument. "Doing D-rank missions won't help them, only real combat will. There's a difference between trusting a teammate to fold laundry correctly and trusting a teammate to cover your back. As experienced as you are, you should know that well."
After several futile seconds of trying to convince herself that Sarutobi was delusional, Kurenai at last gave a grudging nod.
The next day had to be one of the most awkward that Kurenai had ever experienced. Naruto stood in front of his team at the gates of Konoha, making his return with with a hesitant 'Hi.' Hinata muttered 'Hi' in return, and Shino made no reaction whatsoever. Kurenai would have been concerned at this, were it not for the fact that Hinata was always shy and Shino seemed uninterested in everything around him unless it had six legs. No, what bothered her was Naruto's unusual quietness. Normally, he greeted his friends so enthusiastically that passerby would stop and jump in alarm. Not now. For the first time in her life, Kurenai was uncomfortable with the fact that nobody was looking at her.
"Big news everyone! I've signed you all up for the Chunin Exams!" she said with mock enthusiasm.
For several seconds, silence was her only response. Then Shino of all people spoke up.
Why indeed? Kurenai gave a fake cough and cleared her throat to give herself time to come up with a reasonable excuse. "Ahem, well, I simply think you're ready to take on this test. All three of you show tremendous potential, so I'm confident you'll manage to learn well from this experience and grow into splendid shinobi." Yeah, that'll do.
Shino nodded sagely, although it was impossible to know what he was really thinking behind his dark glasses.
"Now then, I'm sure you all have a lot of catching up to do. Why don't you all get some food? I'm afraid I have to do some more paperwork to make sure you're all registered." Kurenai hoped that with only their fellow teammates to talk to, they all might be able to start a conversation. It was a long shot, but it was all she could hope for.
Leaving her students to decide on a restaurant, she headed straight for the women's bathhouses; she needed to talk to Jiraiya about Naruto's training and what was to be done about the child's inner beast.
"So, how about some ramen? Grandpa Jiraiya did promise me some, after all."
Shino adjusted his glasses. "That sounds... acceptable." It was clear from his tone of voice he didn't find the choice acceptable at all, but he had long since learned that arguing with Naruto about food was an exercise in futility.
The walk to Ichiraku's passed in an almost depressing, though thankfully short, silence. Naruto kept opening his mouth during the walk, trying to make conversation, trying to think of a joke, but no words passed his lips.
It was with a sense of relief that they all arrived at the ramen stand to place their orders. Unable to strike up any light chatter with his friends, Naruto turned instead to the booth's only other occupant. He was a ninja, probably chunin judging by his outfit, and had a very prominent scar stretching across the bridge of his nose.
"Hey, I remember you!"
The man turned to him, and immediately winced.
"You're that instructor guy from the academy! Your name... don't tell me... your name's... Rukia! Yeah, that's right, how's it going, Rukia?"
Naruto received a look that wished him a painful death from the instructor, but he wasn't able to respond because of the noodles filling his mouth.
"Yeah, your class was really boring ya know. You should teach your students more jutsu and forget about all those written tests, Rukia."
With a great deal of effort, the chunin instructor swallowed all of the food in his mouth and shouted, "It's Iruka! I-ru-ka! You got that you little brat? And that's Iruka -sensei to you!"
Naruto had a wise-ass remark on the tip of his tongue, but an unexpected sound cut him off. Hinata was giggling. The laughter was infectious, and in no time at all, Naruto joined her with an amused chuckle. Iruka grinned after a moment of half-hearted scowling, and even Shino was secretly smiling behind his high collar. At last, they were a team again.
Author's Note: I am aware that I have just changed the spelling of sever words. And once again, I apologize for the absurdly long delay. I hope to see you all much sooner next time.